“Jim Snyder, You Did It. You’re An Ironman Jim” are the words that rang out over the PA system amidst the cheers from our family and his friends as my 6 foot 2 inch “little brother” crossed the finish line of the Ironman competition at the base of Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks ago. He finished a triathlon that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. That is 140.6 miles, for those of you keeping score at home. He accomplished this test of both skill and will in just under 15 hours. Let me say that again 140.6 miles in less than 15 hours. Incredible. Unbelievable. Amazing. Simply, there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe watching someone you love complete this triathlon, but I’m sure if my little brother had a pen right now he could add a few more adjectives to the list.
In my opinion, this is the most physically and mentally demanding sporting event in which one can participate. After a “leisurely” 2.4-mile lake swim and a “relaxing” 112-mile bike ride through the hills of Wisconsin countryside, you still have to run a full marathon. There is no halftime to catch your breath and no time for a seventh-inning stretch. That's right, it takes fortitude and more fortitude to complete this race. It also takes a year of hard training and preparation.
Just to give you an idea about how hard he trained, a few months ago I called my little brother to say hello on my 35-mile car ride home from work and asked what he was doing. He said to me “ just taking a short 40-mile bike ride.” I replied, “now?” “Yes,” he said, “your phone call interrupted my music.” We talked for a while, but only after I hung up the phone and arrived home I realized that the distance of his short 40-mile workout was longer than my commute to work and he did this or something similar every day for a year.
He prepared well. Relying on his coach, his God-given athletic ability, and a disciplined training regimen, he readied for race day. When September 7th arrived he was at his physical and mental peak. His coach told him, “Get to the starting line healthy and you’ve got a great shot to finish it.”
His hard work, preparation, and experience as a division one collegiate swimmer manifested themselves immediately. My brother completed the 2.4-mile swim in less than an hour. Watching as he transitioned from the swim to the bike our cheering section was proud, a bit surprised, and hoping that he didn’t expend too much energy, as he jumped on his bike for the next 112 miles.
The next time we saw him it was not quite as encouraging. Stationing ourselves at the top of a hill on part of the 40-mile loop on the bike course we repeatedly checked our Ironman App to gauge where he was so we could cheer loudly as he struggled to pedal up the incline. But when we saw him, he wasn’t pedaling, he was walking his bike up the hill accompanied by a medical staff member. He had crashed his bike at the bottom. Chucking his Powerade bottle to my mom, he calmly said to us “just a small accident.” With a scrape on his elbow, he spoke briefly to a few race officials and hopped back on the bike, and continued on. The medical staff spoke to us briefly about what they saw and his condition, but the bottom line was he and his bike were in good enough shape to continue. The next time passed he us on the loop, he was pedaling up the hill as we screamed and cheered. Determination, strength, and fortitude oozed from his body along with the blood and sweat.
We saw him again running along the 26.2-mile marathon path. We were eating lunch as he ran by our restaurant, we were dining alfresco he was running a marathon. The final time we saw him before the finish, he was walking. Stopping briefly to our cheers he gave us hugs and high fives. He told us, “I’m going to walk the rest of the way, If I can hold this pace I’ll finish in plenty of time.” He showed self-control. He knew that the marathon isn’t a sprint and that his skill and fortitude would carry him the rest of the way if he remained in control. He was smart enough to know that his sore body could only go so fast and this was about crossing the finish line not how quickly he could complete the next mile. That is exactly what he did. He put one foot in front of the other and a few hours later crossed the finish to our cheers, tears, and admiration. He was an Ironman.
I couldn’t be more proud of him and his accomplishment. But his journey also can serve as a reminder of principles and truths by which we must live to attain the Joy of Heaven and its Crown of Glory.
First, we must train for the spiritual life. There are eternal truths that we must learn and know so well that when others look at us they know we are training for something more important. This is perhaps the most important part of our spiritual journey. If you never learn how to swim or ride a bike you can’t compete in an Ironman. The same holds true for our faith lives, if you don’t study the truths, teachings, and virtues of Catholicism, you are at a great disadvantage. The words of my brother's coach should be a lesson to all of us “Just get to the starting line healthy and you’ve got a great chance to finish.” I know too many lukewarm Catholics that say, I don’t need to read or learn about my faith, I just go to Mass on Sunday. They aren’t approaching the starting line healthy or prepared, It’s like trying to complete an Ironman with a bum knee and no idea how to ride a bike.
Also, there are going to be plenty of “Race Days” in our lives where we are going to be asked to demonstrate our skills. We need to trust ourselves and our training. If we have prepared well, if we constantly study and pray, we can with confidence step out in faith on the many “Race Days” in which Christ asks us to compete. With that said when we compete, there are risks to doing so. If you never get on a bike it is a guarantee that you won’t fall off a bike but you also won’t go anywhere. To live the Christian life means that we are going to be asked to run a race that is at times difficult, but if we want to receive the Joy of Heaven it is a risk we must be willing to take. There are going to be times that we crash – but it is precisely then that we lean on our training, experience, and the virtue of fortitude. We get back up and continue on, if we yearn for the Crown of Glory, we will do whatever it takes to get there, no bump in the road is going to deter us from our ultimate goal.
Finally, we need to have self-control. We have a mission and we know what it takes to complete that mission. We don’t need to be concerned with who is ahead of us, what the latest social trend is popular, or what others think is important for us to accomplish. If we remain self-controlled and focused on the goal there is no reason to think that we won’t finish the race.
I am grateful to my little brother for bringing the pages of Scripture to life and the reminder that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (1 Corinthians 9:25)” Following this example let us not run aimlessly, but with purpose, conviction, and fortitude into the arms of our Heavenly Father and receive our Crown of Glory.