Death, the dark tunnel to the unknown is the one thing feared by all. We fear it, along with the dying process, including cancer, gray hair, and turning 30.
Saturday, June 2, 2012, four friends and I run the Sunburst 10K. We pour across the finish line in historic Notre Dame stadium with about 8,000 other people, a majority of whom run the shorter 5K. Some run the half marathon, and the bravest of the brave run the full marathon.
The weather is perfect when we start, and we are nervous and excited and carefree, much like the beginning of the Christian life. We climb hills, we drink Gatorade. A shoe comes untied, a water bottle drops. People on the sidewalks cheer us on, and we smile and wave and wish them a good morning. At moments, our sides ache, and we have to walk.
“We’re halfway there!” we shout to each other as we pass the 3-mile mark. We pass Mile 4 and climb the dreadful hill. We survive. We pass Mile 5.
“Only one more mile to go!” I shout.
“One point four miles,” our tireless cheerleader corrects me.
As we near the Notre Dame campus, someone on the sidewalk holds up a sign: “Only 0.87 miles to go!”
We’re so close.
We turn north up Eddy Street. We must be almost there. We have to be almost there. Our breath comes fast, burning our lungs.
It’s on that home stretch that we have our moment of crisis. Somehow, that last 0.87 miles goes on and on and on.
“It’s just up there,” I gasp. “See where those people are turning.”
“I’m feeling sick,” says the girl who is faster than the rest of us but didn’t get to train as much.
We’re all in various stages of disrepair, fiery aches, nausea, brick-like feet. Oxygen supplies are running out. There’s vomit beside the road.
“We can do it guys, it’s right around the corner,” says our undaunted cheerleader. But even her face is drawn and pale.
Right around the corner is too far.
“We can do it, we can do it, we’re almost there!”
We turn the corner.
Then we turn off the street, and the tunnel swallows us. We rush down the cement slope. Everything is cool. And dark. And downhill. We shout and cheer. It’s only a moment, and we burst through to the other side, and everything is bright and green. Under the banner that says finish line stands our male friend, who got there first. He’s giving us high fives, and all around us in the bright sunlight are all the other people who finished before us, and behind us on longer and harder courses, there are others still coming.
Seeing life’s course in this light, the tunnel of death frightens me less. I would be frightened if I wasn’t sure if I was registered, if I didn’t have a number. I would be frightened if I ran out of water. I would be frightened if I hadn’t trained. I would be frightened if I missed the start of the race, if I got there too late.
I would be frightened if I were alone. In some sense, running–like life– is an individual exercise, and no one can run for you. But at the same time, in that moment of crisis on that last dreadful stretch, it made all the difference that we were together.
With these thoughts in mind, I’ll be turning 30 in a few weeks. That puts me closer to the tunnel than I was at 18, yes, and farther from the carefree skipping at the starting line. And I know there will be some moments of crisis that I will have to go through in this process called aging. Perhaps there will be some last dreadful moments before I reach the tunnel.
But I think that my hunch about the tunnel itself is right, and I think that when we come out onto the green in the sunlight, there will be people waiting for us under the finish line. In that new bright environment, that dream come true, we will at last know that the tunnel was not the enemy.
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your sting?
O grave, where is your victory?
–I Corinthians 15: 54, 55