Mike Mulligan, and the Difference Between Running and Racing


by Jennifer Vasil

My favorite book when I was a child was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Ostensibly, it’s a story about lasting worth in an age of increasing technology and planned obsolescence, and that idea had a considerable impact on my value system. But perhaps more than that, I identified with the protagonists’ work ethic. Whenever people were watching them, Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, his trusty workhorse, would dig a little faster and a little better. The more people that watched, the faster and better they dug in proportion.

Sometimes, having this work ethic has helped me. Those watchful eyes keep me hypercritical of my performance and sensitive to others’ perceptions when I might otherwise be tempted to phone something in. At other times, though, Mike Mulligan’s tendencies have been the opposite of what I’ve needed.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in my summer running regimen. At any other time of the year, my drive to run a little faster and a little better when others are watching is manageable, even beneficial. But during the summer in Memphis, when the heat and humidity can make even early morning runs unbearable, it’s actually dangerous. I have to fight against my tendency to ramp up my speed when my usual trail puts me in view of the traffic on Walnut Grove. I have to tell myself it’s ok to take a break and walk sometimes, even if there are other people who can see me. I give myself the same pep talk I give to novice runners – if both feet are off the ground at the same time, it doesn’t matter what speed you’re going: you’re running. When Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne got too caught up in performing for the crowd, they trapped themselves in the basement they were digging for the new town hall, and Mary Anne had to become the building’s boiler so she wouldn’t have to be totally dismantled and hauled out as scrap. When I do the same on a summer run, I get cold chills and my fingers hurt, signs that I’m going into heat exhaustion.

The Apostle Paul talks a lot about running and about racing, in particular, which for me is very telling about the ways in which he viewed living out our faith. Racing, like almost any contest, is a very public activity. And while I am solidly in that middling pack that will never win any land-speed records for our performance, there are very few of us in that pack who don’t make a concerted effort to put on a valiant face and run a little better when the race photographers are taking our picture or when we enter that last half mile or so before the finish line. Some of the ways Paul talks about the day-to-day things we should do as Christians remind me of this. He doesn’t seem the kind of guy to advocate taking “walk breaks” in our daily practice, and while his directives hold us to high standards at all times, he’s especially conscious of how our actions can be perceived by others.

I get a different sense from Jesus’ words, though. His message is filled with hiding in closets to pray and not letting one hand know what the other is doing. He had problems with conspicuous displays of piety, and I wonder sometimes what he would say about Paul’s take on this issue. In the case of my issues with performance, I imagine he’d ask me about my motives. Is running faster about the hope that others will view me as more capable, perhaps even as enviable, or is it about the rush that comes when my legs feel weightless and my feet and arms are in perfect synch, toes barely touching the ground before they take off again in a sprint? If running fast for me is about the former, then I’m essentially a Pharisee, doing everything for show regardless of any other motives. But if it’s about the latter, then it’s about joy. It’s about me being and moving and living in a way that, for just that moment, is in perfect synch with what God intended for me. Sometimes that’s fun to share with an audience, with a community. As long as the audience doesn’t become the motivation behind my actions, I imagine that’s ok.

But I know that the danger for me lies when I make others’ perceptions of me my driving force, whether that’s in my running life, my work life, or my faith life. Summer training is one of those important lessons in humility I need to remind me to run my own race, to take care of myself while doing so, and to consider my motives.


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