1st Sidebar – My greatest victory in the Marathon was a DNF (did not finish)

A turning point occurred in December of 1991.  I had trained more than 140 miles per week for the previous nine months.  I had raced over thirty races in the preceding year winning many of them and racing faster with each contest.  I was ready to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials and possibly the Olympics themselves.  I had only taken one break in the previous ten months, my honeymoon in July.  That week I only ran eighty miles as I would daily sneak out early in the morning while my bride still slept and get my twelve milers in.  Yeah, what a swell guy I was.  All this while taking a fourteen hour per semester graduate load and having a full time corporate exercise scientist job.  Lucky for Louise, my wife, to marry such a relaxed and balanced guy (cough, cough)!

Once in August, after dragging her to yet another race and trying to explain away the obsession as the focus of elite sport, I made a declaration.  “If God didn’t want me to race in the Olympics, then I would get injured, let’s leave it to Him”, I said.  

I had no idea, He would take me so seriously!  It was the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.  A flat and fast course with cool December air and usually no wind.  My wife had gone on ahead finishing up an advertising job in that area while I made the trek mid-week.  As I was driving through West Memphis, Tennessee on that rainy Wednesday night on my way to the race, an 18 wheeler (large lorry for my international friends) struck my car and crushed it against a cement wall while traveling at 60 mph.  He drug my car for more than 800 yards before it was so disabled it broke free and he continued on his way never knowing until the police caught him several hours later.   

During the accident, instead of considering the danger to my life, my relationship with God, or the loss of our vehicle, I was consumed with thoughts of affected performance in my race on Saturday.  I felt a little off physically in my left hip, but we have since learned that my pain tolerance is a bit wacked from all the years of sports and racing, so I didn’t really pay attention to it.  

On raceday, I took off, feeling fairly good and helped set the pace with the lead group for the first five miles or so.  It was my wife’s home town, so her family were all out with encouraging signs with “Barcelona or Bust” (Barcelona, Spain was the host for the 1992 Olympics).  They didn’t see me again until the 10th mile.  In the interim, God and I had a conversation as the previously unknown crack in the head of my femur continued to widen and bring my racing and Olympic hopes to a grinding halt.  The wreck had done me in.  Amazing that I walked away from that accident with my life.  Miraculous that I had walked away with just a small fracture in my left hip.  I pulled off the course at mile ten, got in the van with the family and simply said, “Well, He has spoken, and I guess the Olympics aren’t to be.”  I was devastated, but, He had a plan to heal that too.  He was redirecting me.  I had been so consumed with what I desired, that my pursuits had become gods unto themselves that I worshipped daily.  It was in this loss, and the redirecting, that I won.  I was not yet ready to go to Africa as a missionary, but I was ready to choose Him over me.

Mark 8:32-34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

About the healing.  Eleven years afterwards, in Togo, West Africa, during our misson team’s training session, our team was encouraging each other.  It came someone’s turn to encourage me.  In this moment they talked of my determination and persistence and I expressed guilt and remorse that sometimes this “gift” from God had led me beyond His will to pursue my own desires.  I gave the example of my career in racing while accidentally expressing deep remorse and loss.  Other teammates spoke up to ask where I had been injured.  I said, “In my left hip.”  They then spoke of a couple in Arizona that had been praying for the Togolese people, who even though they did not know me, had, while praying seen me lying on the ground and God call out my name, touching me on the left hip and saying, “You are healed.”  I wept deeply as the remorse, loss, and guilt washed away and was replace by His peace.  I was then left in wondrous awe of such deep love that He would use an, unknown to me, couple in Arizona, to speak healing over me.

Grace and Peace

I didn’t want to do this:  Part 1a – Becoming

This is a three part series on how my sport development story happened.

I came from a family where we were given every opportunity to succeed and were expected to do so (in a kind and supportive way).  My father, as an officer in the army and former basketball player, saw the value of sports in developing our character and led by example continuing to play basketball and running well into his adult years.  As well, we all pursued a vibrant relationship with our savior Jesus and sought to live a life where our faith in God was integrated into all.

From the age of five, I ran.  Our parents were quick to put us in “everything”.  I played tennis, basketball, football, baseball, and swam in addition to the running from the age of seven.  We were a “sporting family” of the 1970’s.  At the age of ten, I wanted to accomplish two things:  win the Olympic marathon and become a cardiologist.  I know that is a bit early for lofty goals, but it was important in our family to plan ahead.

Spring of 1988.  As a junior at Harding University, I was racing well and had scored decently on my MCAT.  Things seemed to be humming along very nicely for my 10 year old plans.  What I didn’t count on was the impact of my Bible courses at Harding which began to augment the faith journey I had been on since childhood.  That semester, I was being taught by a missionary serving in Kenya.  Towards the end of the semester after many heated discussions in class, he called me to his office or maybe I just happened by and he expressed that he could see me becoming a missionary to Africa as well.  I remember, either just in my imagination or in the flesh, placing my hand on his desk, quite possibly in a fist of defiance, and proclaiming that I would never be a missionary, and most definitely would never be a missionary in Africa.

Thus began an eight year wrestling match with God that I eventually lost. Only, in losing to God, I won at life.

Jeremiah 29:11

11For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Making lemonade … 

Our truck is and has been there for us.  It seats up to fifteen people, can go just about anywhere and it has been ultimately reliable.  About three years ago I decided that it needed to be branded to increase visibility for Taekwondo which is our main sport of development for Rwanda.  That truck has carried competitive and demonstration teams all over Rwanda.  It has served as the logistics vehicle for the cycling “Tour of Rwanda” as well.  It is vital to our work to say the least.  Last Friday things took a turn for the worst when there was a car passing in our lane about to cause a head on collision.  In swerving to avoid it our car spun off the road in the rain and flew, sort of, before landing in a river about twenty feet below the road.  It was a hit and run or miss and run as you could say.  

Friends of ours in the USA have started a “gofundme” campaign for us to redeem our beloved truck and you can check it our at:

https://www.gofundme.com/truck-repair-for-marty-and-louise

In the meantime, I have a daily 10KM round trip to my office at the national stadium.  No problem, I’ll make the hike daily as I wouldn’t mind shedding a few lbs before putting them back on with American food in June.  Of course, I could take a bike taxi, yes we have those, for most of the way and it would cost me about 30 cents.  Or I could take a motorcycle taxi and it would cost me about 75 cents (US Dollars), but that is just one way.  Or I could take an actual taxi and that would cost me about $8.  Or I could walk and pray for Rwanda, which I’ve decided is the best option being that I would also like to lose a little weight.  Today, though, something happened.  Maybe it was sitting next to the world champion 800 meter runner or sitting next to the 1/2 marathon female champion, or maybe it was the old running Marty that just rose up and decided to run home today.

I am the new Rwandan 50 year old foreigner fully dressed and backpack carrying 5km record holder at 26 minutes and 5 seconds.  Which has got to be a PR for me as well at 50, with a backpack, and long pants and at 5000 ft altitude.  

So what’s the point?  Development has to be flexible, persistent, able to overcome obstacles and crisis, and it just can’t help itself, it will find a way and run.

Romans 5:3-5

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

About a coach…

 

Martin Koonce track Harding
Martin racing for Ted Lloyd at Harding University in the 80’s

 

A word about a coach …  not just any coach, but a Hall of Fame coach and US Track and Field Board Member and my coach for five years.

I had the notorious distinction of being the one athlete in his more than 40 year coaching career to make him the angriest, on three or maybe four occasions no less.  He has the distinction of making the greatest impact on me.

There is always a turning point, hopefully, sooner than later.  Mine occurred during February of my junior year.  I struggled, as many athletes do in their transition from high school to university, to win.  I dreamed of winning and even trained hard enough to win, but I was a head case and mentally would implode at the prospect of winning often drifting not so slowly from 1st to somewhere in the top ten at the least sign of a challenge.  I hated it and loathed myself for it.

One training day during an 8 mile run we were asked to run the middle five at a pace that was just a bit uncomfortable, almost racing.  I ran mine on our cross country course.  Somewhere, hidden in the adjacent stands of the baseball complex was my wonderful coach, the famous Ted Lloyd.  He had a sneaking suspicion I was faster than I thought.  So, on this five miles of training I floated along unassuming and crossed the “line” only to look up and see his hulking 6’3″ 220+ frame storming across the field right at me.  Nowhere to hide, nowhere (else) to run to we met in the middle, the five inches he had on me seemed to grow to ten.  Looking down at me he asked what I thought my time was.  I responded that I had no idea and he informed me that I set a new personal record by three full minutes and almost beat the course record on a training run.  He then proceeded to stab me in the chest (proverbially) with his foot long index finger and informed me that I will finally begin winning when I get tired of losing.  Then he stormed off never to mention the incident again.  I promptly began winning.

What changed?  He changed me.  He changed my faith.  I began to believe that it was possible to do well and be victorious not in just running but more importantly in life.

That’s what coaches do.  They stretch, prod, push, pull, mold, and mentor the athlete or player convincing them they can do and be more.  We need coaches, desperately, who can do this, all the while for a higher purpose and calling.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 1Co 9:24-26

I praise God for Coach Ted Lloyd. He helped me to get that crown that lasts forever, he developed me through sport.

Its a Marathon

Wish there was a photo to document it.  At that time Captain Koonce dressed his family every morning in grey army sweats and at 5:30 AM loaded us up in the Buick to go to the high school track and run our minimum two miles.  Yes, even the family dog, a poodle named Fritz, was included sans US Army sweats.

Five years later in the fall of 1978, I ran my first marathon at the age of eleven.  Yeah, yeah, I know they don’t allow that anymore, but, hey, it was the 70’s; we took knives to school and sledded while being towed behind a truck.  It was the AAU Championships, the International Rice Festival Marathon in Crowley, Louisiana.  It started late because of fog and by the 10 am gun it had reached a sweltering 85 degrees.  I’ll never forget the shimmer of heat rising off the pavement.  I also couldn’t believe how long three hours could be.  Alas, I finished in 3: 42 minutes, won the under 17 division (I guess that made me a national champion at the age of 11)  🙂  and I was welcomed into the world of marathons.

I can tell you this about marathons.  It doesn’t matter whether your racing them or you are just trying to finish, it is a long ordeal.  It cannot be completed without great preparation, personal sacrifice and without enduring some pain.  It can be a very rewarding experience and worthwhile endeavor.

Sport development for ministry is a marathon, but, I am hoping, however, that reading this blog won’t be!

Running that first marathon we trained ten miles a day four days a week and ran a 20 miler on the weekend for almost four months.  I will never forget nor will I ever thank God enough for having that time with my Dad.  He ran with me, coached me, led me and encouraged me.  We did it together.  He invested in me.

That in so many ways is a perfect view into the window of sports development for ministry.  It is investment, it is sacrifice, it is time, and in the end it is all about the relationships.

The Colonel, as we have fun calling him now, my Dad, invested in me.  In this he had the venue to share with me his inner life of faith, his dependence on Jesus, and his great hopes for me.  I guess this is where it all began, he was developing me through sport.

Welcome

Let’s consider something together.  Think about sports.  From spectator to participant it seems almost everyone is impacted.  From armchair to the field of play the spirit rises or falls and emotions ranging from elation to sadness are experienced in an instant as hopes are either dashed or realized.

Participation in training for competition or in training for health changes us dramatically.  Transformation occurs physically, mentally, and emotionally.  The gains and victories are almost as beneficial as the losses and disappointments.

Sports can be a tool for the benefit of many, if used with that end in mind.  That is what I would like for you to consider through this blog.  I will share my experiences in sport development in Africa and elsewhere.  I will try, but cannot promise to be eloquent, deep, or comedic; but by God’s grace I will tell some great stories and share things that I’ve observed over time.  Hopefully it will at least be a provoking read and at best you will celebrate along with me how God can use something such as sport to grow our faith in Christ.