Chapter 1: Getting Started

After lacing up my shoes, I headed toward the starting line of my first 5k race. The only problem? I didn’t know what the letter “k” was for.
As I made my way to the back of the pack my friends in the front of the line called out to me, “Schwartzy, come on up here. You’re not going to win this thing, so you may as well get a good start.”  

I asked them, “So, how long is this race anyway?”
They said, “It’s 3.1 miles.”

I had never run a race before but seeing all the runners got my adrenaline going and I quickly became very excited about this opportunity. So, at the urging of my friends, I lined up in the front of 4,000 runners in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As the timer counted down, I had a thought. On several occasions I had seen televised marathons where some incredible runner was out in front of the pack with a personal escort of motorcycles and cameras. I thought, Since I am not going to win, I may as well try to catch the motorcade.

When the gun blew I took off in a dead sprint to catch the motorcade. I remember listening to my friends laugh. But I didn’t care. I was on a mission.

A short ways into the race I looked back over my head at the 4,000 runners behind me. Immediately a thought flew through my mind: I am winning this race! And I was…for about five blocks. Then things began to change. Never have I seen the back of so many heads as everyone started blowing past me. But that wasn’t the worst.

Coming up to the second water station, a boy about 10 years old–who I had never seen before and I’ve never seen since–came by, slapped me on my backside, said
“Come on, old man, you can do it,” and went zooming on by.

I prayed, “Lord, if you will just let me catch that kid…”

Then I thought, This race really isn’t that big of a deal. Who really cares about a stupid race?All I wanted to do was quit!

Even though I had a miserable time, I made it to the finish line and that experience sparked an idea. Perhaps if I trained and was prepared I could have more fun. Moreover, if I could run 3.1 miles with no training, then perhaps someday I could run a marathon.

Call me crazy, but I love challenges.

Within 10 years I successfully plodded my way through my first two marathons. In 2007, however, I decided to run a sub four-hour marathon and began to train hard for the Chicago Marathon. I spent the summer side by side with a good friend of mine so I would be more than prepared to finish strong. Before summer’s end, I had completed two 20-mile runs without being tired afterward. I knew I was all set to have a great race.

On race day, Chicago’s temperature rocketed to nearly 90 degrees. Although I had run very well all summer, I found myself getting tired by mile eight. I thought I could shake it off, but the feeling persisted. At the 12-mile mark I saw my wife standing on the sidelines with my daughter and asked her to pray for me. My buddy could tell I was having a difficult time, but he kept reassuring me and encouraging me to keep running.

By mile 15, I started telling my buddy to leave me behind and run his own race, but he kept saying that we trained together and there was no way he was going to leave me. For the next three miles I encouraged him to race ahead. Finally, I knew I was going to have to start walking and running and walking again.

My buddy finally looked at me and said, “You wouldn’t leave me, would you?”

I looked back at him and said, “Well, I would if you told me to for the past three miles!” So at mile 18 he finally raced on ahead.

As you can imagine, I was so disappointed. For months I had trained hard, eaten right, slept well, and was prepared for this big race–and yet I felt worse than I could ever remember. By now the heat was almost oppressive. It was all I could do to not give up and quit.

Shortly before the 19-mile marker, I turned onto Chicago’s Ashland Avenue. Ahead of me a race official ran out into the road and pointed everyone to the side. I looked to my right and a couple of steps off Ashland Avenue was a man on his back and they were beginning to do CPR.

I felt a deep, strong compulsion to go and pray over this man. So I ran past the race official and immediately swung back around and went over to the man, stood by his head, and began to pray over him. To this day everything still feels like a blur but I prayed until the ambulance came. As he was ready to be loaded into the ambulance I stopped praying and started walking again. For me, though, the race was over.

As I walked I heard the familiar voice of the Holy Spirit speak to my heart, “Jeff, the most important thing in this life is being prepared for the next.” I continued to hear this voice over and over as I walked step by step along the race course. Within minutes, the Chicago Marathon was canceled but I still had a seven-mile walk to the finish in 90 degree heat. All I wanted to do was see my wife and daughter again, but that would have to wait.

Later that same day I heard the man I had prayed over had died. When I got home I looked up the story on the Internet, found his picture, and discovered this man, whose name was Chad Schieber, had attended church in Midland, Michigan. So the following day I called his pastor. I told him my story and, surprisingly, he began to celebrate, so I asked the pastor if he knew for sure that Chad was a Christian. He quickly said yes and went on to tell me what a great leader he was in the church, in the community, and in his home and family.

The pastor then asked whether Chad’s wife knew about me praying over him. I explained that I had never met his family or talked with any of them. So he asked me to come and share my story at Chad’s funeral. He said the reason he wanted me to come was because his wife had also run the race and had deeply wished she could have been there praying over him as he met the Lord Jesus Christ.

At Chad’s funeral I was able to confidently assure his wife and others in attendance that when Chad stepped off Ashland Avenue in Chicago, he stepped right onto the streets of gold in heaven.

It’s true. “The most important thing in this life is being prepared for the next.”

Would you be ready if you were to die today?

Copyright © 2009 Jeff Schwarzentraub. Used by permission.  Excerpted from Challenging Christianity: For Those Who Have the Guts to Be Challenged by the Claims of Jesus Christ 

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