Yesterday I ran the Dark Hedges Half Marathon, starting and finishing in the small rural town of Dervock, County Antrim. This was not a big or clever idea on my part as I have been struggling with a viral infection for the best part of a month. I had not run a great deal in the lead up to tbe event and when I had, my times had been much slower than normal.
Fionnuala and others had advised me to either give the event a miss or run the shorter 10K version. But when have us men ever listened to our wives despite them invariably being right? I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over the £22 entry fee. No, what Stubborn Stephen didn’t want to miss out on was an official race photo of him running through the iconic Dark Hedges stretch of road, made famous as a set in Game of Thrones and other TV shows/movies.
Being a massive GOT fan this was one race I was determined to take part in, whether I ran, walked or crawled over the finish line. So I found myself at the start, far from 100% but determined to stay the distance. I set off at a modest pace swallowing my pride as runners I would normally be well ahead of overtook me in the early stages. I felt okay so picked up the pace a little but reined myself in over a hilly section after the half way point.
This took me to the top of the road where the Dark Hedges themselves stretched out beneath me. Startled tourists refocuses their camera lenses as two hundred half marathoners hurtled down the road towards them. I felt like a film star and picked up my pace accordingly. This would turn out afterwards to have been my fastest mile of the race. I was Jon Snow. In a pair of beat up Nike trainers and without the broadsword.
And then up ahead I saw him up ahead. Tbe official race photographer on bended knee in the middle of the road poised to capture me in all my glory bounding towards me. I sped up so as to pass the runner in front of me and ensure my athletic physique alone would fill the photographer’s frame. This was why moment. The once in a lifetime shot that would encapsulate my running career.
I have been known to pull strange faces when in mid flight. In a past life I once posted a blog entitled ‘Goldfish Boy’ about the unfortunate open mouthed expression I adopted in my early races. Think ‘Finding Dory’ in his-visibility clothing. Not this time. No goldfish impersonations, no stupid waves; in fact I was going to keep my mouth firmly shut and keep my eyes focused straight ahead. I would be captured for all eternity as unstoppable, impenetrable and impossibly cool.
And with that I was past him. Five miles later I crossed the finishing line in a heap. By far one of my slowest times but I was proud I had completed the course without stopping giving the circumstances. I picked up my race medal, fluorescent orange t shirt and complimentary Mars Bars and drove home in excited anticipation of the race photos being posted online later on.
It was this morning that Fionnuala started scrolling down the photos….and down….and down. I told you it wasn’t my fastest time. But finally we reached the moment I had been waiting for. MY Dark Hedges photograph. The steely eyed, chisel jawed action hero shot that I had already allotted wall space to. Was this the image to make the 13.1 mile slog with a chest infection worthwhile?
Er….no. So hard had I been trying to look straight ahead and keep my mouth shut that I now resembled a constipated chipmunk, my face contorted in a mixture of exhaustion and agony. ‘How come everyone else looks normal compared to you?’ asked my ever sympathetic wife. ‘It’s terrible’ I replied ‘Don’t even bother sending it to me?’. My heroics had been in vain.
How many times in life have you tried ‘putting on a face’ to the outside world to the extent where the real you has been masked beyond recognition? Where you have been so desperate to impress others or adapt to a certain scenario that you have been quite happy to abandon your core values and beliefs? Where the beauty of your pure essence has been diluted and poisoned by your desperate need to follow to the ways of the world?
We have all been there. Crumbling to peer pressure, conforming to materialism, buckling under the weight of sinful desires. The need to be popular, to be desired, to be loved consumes us to the extent that we become irrevocably uprooted from our very foundations. We will slaughter our very souls rather than risk walking out of step with the world. We value empty, temporary pleasures over eternal peace and salvation.
I want to stop living life this way. I want to be me. The me who is accepted and loved by the handful of people who matter. The real me. Not the vain, shallow, self obsessed man who regularly takes control of my body. I want to love others more and hate myself less. I want to give my life to Jesus and follow him to the ends of the earth. Or the end of my street. Whatever the will of God is.
Philippians 2:3 – ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.’
What is the worst photograph you have ever seen of yourself?
How often do you wear the mask of conformity?
When did you last ignore Jesus?