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Joy in the race

Andi Ripley (A to Z running)


Joy in the race

For marathoner Andi Ripley, running is a kind of worship

After a morning run, Andi Ripley sat and stretched her legs in the bustling lobby of a downtown Atlanta hotel. Tomorrow was the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the marathon, and 31-year-old Ripley, who was scheduled to compete, had been fighting nerves.

“I have been struggling with anxiety, and I don’t know what’s going to come, and I do know it’s going to be painful,” she said. Worried about her past hip and hamstring injuries, Ripley decided she would instead focus on what she could control—staying hydrated, doing her drills, fueling up with good food—while trusting God with the outcome.

Ripley never expected to be here. She was surprised when her 2019 finish time at the Chicago Marathon—2 hours, 43 minutes—qualified her for the Olympic trials. Since her time had trailed the top female contenders by about 20 minutes, she didn’t enter the race to make the Olympic team but to enjoy the rare experience of running with the nation’s fastest women.

But in Atlanta in late February, the race day’s hilly course and windy conditions would result in an unpredictable finish and disappointing finish times for many athletes. For Ripley, it was another chance to practice worshipping God even when running is difficult.

Leap day in Atlanta was sunny with blue skies and temperatures of around 50 degrees. Stiff winds whipped around tall downtown buildings. Wearing blue Nikes and a black racing singlet, Ripley ran down Peachtree Street among a mass of more than 400 women marathoners. Crowds lined the sidewalks, and fans screamed or clanged cowbells. A nearby speaker blared the song from Disney’s Mulan, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” 

Ripley has run since age 8, when her mom made her run daily to stay in shape for soccer. In junior high, she liked being able to outrun all the boys at school, but she also began to see the “reckless abandon of running” as a way of worshipping God. One such moment of worship came after a bus ride to a junior high cross-country meet, when Ripley prayed with a friend as the other girl committed her life to Christ. “I remember getting off the bus, and I felt like I was flying,” Ripley said. During that race, her running became an expression for “that joy that my friend would be in heaven with me.” She set a school record at the meet.

Now Andi is a wife and mom living in western Michigan. Running is still worshipful for her, but it’s also something she’s learned to hold loosely. As someone who can spend up to 15 hours a week running, she could easily let the sport control or define her life. As her husband and fellow runner Zach explains, the ability to run is a gift of God’s grace, but His grace remains even when He takes that ability away.

It kind of feels like the kind of worship that’s like fasting. That discomfort ... focuses my complete reliance on God.

When Ripley was pregnant with each of her two boys, she had to forgo running for months because of difficulties with the pregnancies. A funny-shaped bone in both hips also predisposes her to injuries, and she’s had to learn to train without aggravating the problem. While many of her competitors peaked in training for the marathon at 100-mile weeks, Ripley had to limit her training to about 60 per week. “Having to restrain myself is a very difficult thing,” she admitted. That self-discipline, though, has “been great practice.”

At a bend in the course in Atlanta, Ripley’s family yelled as she ran by: “Go, Andi! Run!” She kept her gaze straight ahead and seemed to smile as she ran, her brown braid swinging behind her.

Ripley finished with a time of 2:55, almost 30 minutes behind the top female runner. Soon after crossing the finish line, she walked gingerly toward the women’s athlete tent, a foil sheet pulled around her shoulders for warmth. “I didn’t feel good from the first step, so I knew it was going to have to be all about, ‘Just keep going,’” she said. “I actually thought during the race, ‘I’m leaving my pride aside. It’s about just finishing now.’”

Painful and inefficient, it wasn’t the race Ripley wanted. But she still described the experience as worshipful. “It kind of feels like the kind of worship that’s like fasting,” she said. “That discomfort … focuses my complete reliance on God.” 

She added: “I definitely felt it was God’s strength that was allowing me to continue, and the opportunity was one that He had given me.”