Uphill. Downhill. Level Ground.
That pretty much covers it. There are variables to be sure. It could be a smooth road, a rocky trail, or a muddy track. But, regardless of the surface, the grade is either uphill, downhill, or level ground. Just those three. That’s all. That’s enough!
So it is when we walk, run, ride, and drive. So it is with life. So it is with following Jesus.
Recently, I’ve become more highly sensitized to the significance and impact of the grade of the ground. In 2016, I’ve done more running, by far, than in any year since 1985. Why have the entries in my running log multiplied and the distances grown? It’s not because I’m getting younger. It’s not because running is getting any easier. It’s not that my knees don’t ache and periodically swell.
It’s because I have a new motivation: Coleman!
About a year and a half ago, we purchased a jogging stroller so that we could get Coleman outside more, for longer periods of time, and in places where a wheelchair is less practical or functional. While Coleman is ambulatory, he wears over-the-calf AFOs (ankle-foot orthoses) on both legs. He fatigues very quickly, which makes long walks difficult and extended excursions an impossibility for him.
The jogging stroller has far exceeded our hopes and expectations regarding the level of enjoyment that it brings Coleman to be outside and on the move in the fresh air and warm sunshine. Mind you, this isn’t your average jogging stroller. It is a specialized push chair designed for older children and small adults with disabilities, engineered to accommodate an individual weighing up to 200 lbs. The stroller has been worth every single penny we spent on it, and is one of the best investments we have ever made.
How can I be certain that a non-verbal, developmentally disabled, autistic, 23 year-old young man actually enjoys riding in the stroller? It constitutes crystal clear communication when Coleman goes to the garage, stands beside the stroller, and repeatedly points to it. Ditto, when he sets out my running shoes and a running shirt. While riding, he sits perfectly still and beautifully contented, moving only to periodically sign “bird” or “train” or whatever other sounds he hears in the great outdoors.
Long walks with Coleman in his stroller turned into short jogs. Short jogs gradually morphed into longer runs. An average week now involves two solo training runs (my creaky knees don’t allow me to run every day) and an outing with Coleman in the stroller on Saturdays. In addition to our regular Saturday jaunts, we’ve recently competed in three official 5K road races. We upped our game a couple of weekends ago with our first 10K.
Back to the subject of uphill, downhill, and level ground.
The Challenge of Uphill
Uphill is hard. Uphill hurts. Uphill is a beating. Uphill makes you want to quit.
All of us experience uphill challenges in life. It may have been growing up in a dysfunctional family or a broken home. It may have been academic struggles as a child, social awkwardness, or frequently being the target of bullies or mean-spirited classmates or neighbors who took sadistic delight in tormenting you. Perhaps it was the deeply scarring trauma of being physically, sexually, or psychologically abused as a child or as an adult. The heartbreak of rejection by someone you love. The loss of employment. The end of a marriage. The death of a child. A diagnosis of cancer. Bankruptcy. A shattered dream or an abandoned vision. Questioning your faith; not just the common “unanswerable questions” that most people grapple with at one time or another, but seriously doubting the core tenets of your belief system, including the very existence of God.
Life has lots of uphill. But, it’s not forever. Every hill has a summit. Uphill is seasonal. Uphill is survivable.
Before I started pushing Coleman in his stroller, I would have sworn that most streets that I frequent were almost entirely flat. Deception! Trickery! It’s a lie!
The stroller is so well designed and constructed that pushing Coleman on level ground is not too much of a challenge. However, since he weighs 170 lbs. and the stroller 30 lbs., even the slightest uphill stretch is immediately apparent. On steep grades, you become painfully aware of the gravity of 200 lbs. pushing back in the other direction, naturally wanting to go back down the hill.
Uphill calls for adjustments. Gone are the days when I could simply charge a hill, frenetically grind it out, and get it over with as quickly as possible. Now, I have to slow my pace and dramatically shorten my stride, or I’ll be fully spent long before I reach the summit.
Uphill is time to focus. Uphill is time to pray. Uphill is time to dig deep. Uphill is time for positive self-talk. Uphill is a reminder that extraneous things really don’t matter. Uphill is minimalist. Uphill is simple; a simple, singular struggle. Uphill is time to channel Dory with a bit of terrestrial, poetic license, “Just keep running, running, running…”
Coleman keeps me from quitting. He doesn’t say anything. Quite literally, he doesn’t say a word. But, he’s there, and he’s why I keep running. “We’ve got this Coleman! We’ve got this! Almost there. Almost to the top. Almost over. We’re not going to stop.”
Whatever form your uphill is taking right now, don’t give up. Don’t pack it in. Don’t quit. Don’t bail. Don’t stop. I know it’s hard. I know it hurts. I wish it were different. It will be different. It will be better. I don’t know when, but it will be.
Until then, remember who (or Who) you’re running for. Others are counting on you. They love you. They’re pulling for you. They believe in you. They are with you. You’ve got this! Uphill makes you stronger!
The Deception of Downhill
Downhill comes as such a relief. Downhill lets you breathe. Downhill makes you want to extend your stride, pick up your pace, and make up for lost time. Downhill makes you feel like you could run all day. Downhill makes you feel younger, lighter, and fresher. Except, I’m not. I’m older, heavier, and have logged 53 years already. 53 isn’t fresh by any definition!
Downhill is where I’m tempted to get a bit (or a whole lot) overconfident. The ease of downhill can make me cocky, complacent, and inattentive. Going downhill, it’s all too easy to turn an ankle or allow a stroller wheel to drop off the edge of a paved trail.
Downhill is where I have the urge to stretch out my stride so that I don’t appear to have such an “old man gait.” Therein lies a serious problem. My particular knee ailment (owing to surgery on both of them in the ‘90s and sundry injurious tweaks to them in the two decades since) is made much worse by not keeping a short running stride. I don’t understand all of the biomechanics, kinesiology, and physiology of it, but downhill is much harder on my knees than uphill.
So, I’ve got to keep it slow, short, and steady on the downhill slopes. Thankfully, Coleman’s stroller is equipped with a handbrake, connected to the front wheel, that keeps me from being pulled downhill too fast by the 200 lbs. in front of me.
I imagine that running downhill slowly and methodically appears rather odd to some other runners, especially those who are younger, stronger, faster, and who breeze past us with ease. That’s okay. When tempted to join their accelerated romp, I audibly repeat to Coleman, “Our race, our pace, buddy! Our race, our pace!”
Don’t measure yourself in comparison to anyone else, regardless of who they are. They’re not living your life. They’re not where you are. They may be opinionated about the circumstances of your life, but they’re not responsible for it. It’s not their load to carry. Let them run their race. You run yours. When I asked a young friend as to how I could best pray for him, he answered, “Just pray that I’ll be best version of me that I can be!” Keen insight and wise counsel! Your race, your pace!
Downhill is temporary too. There’s a bottom to every hill, beyond which may either be level ground or an immediate steep incline that will suck the wind right out of your lungs. Don’t lose your focus. Don’t assume it will always be this easy. Enjoy it while it lasts. Keep it real!
Doubling Down on Level Ground
The challenge of uphill and the deception of downhill has caused me to really relish, embrace, celebrate, and maximize those stretches of level ground.
Level ground is an opportunity to reestablish my pace, restore my running rhythm, regulate my breathing, and get into a groove again. Normalcy is relative, but whatever normal is for you, that’s your level ground.
Double down on level ground!
Take advantage of the relative calm to become more disciplined, more tenacious, more resolute, and more zealously committed. In terms of discipleship in Jesus, utilize times of level ground to restore the rhythms of spiritual discipline in your life through regular times of prayer, mediation on the Word, silence, and service to others. Allow the wind of the Spirit to refresh you, equip you, and strengthen you. You’re going to need it for the next hill. There’s ALWAYS another hill!