This weekend, thousands of runners will fill the streets of Washington for the Rock and Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon. Though I will not be running this year, the occasion is making me reflect on what training for that race last year taught me.

Sometime in December 2017, I received an e-mail from a coworker inviting me and some other people at the Archdiocese of Washington Pastoral Center to run the Rock and Roll Half-Marathon in March 2018. My initial reaction was to laugh at the thought of running 13.1 miles, since to that point my running experience consisted of an occasional two or three mile run.

But the next day, as I was sitting in a pew praying before covering an assignment at Little Flower Parish in Bethesda, Maryland, I had the type of inspiration to do something crazy that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit. Or maybe there is something in the holy water at that church, since it is also the home parish of Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky, who always encourages students to set big goals for themselves. 

Whatever it was, I felt certain that running this race was something that I needed to do for my physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

So I left the church and signed up for the race, which was about three months away. There was a real possibility that I would fail, but I decided that I didn't want to let that fear stop me. I researched training schedules and made myself some handmade calendars, writing in the distances I needed to run each day in order to make it to 13.1 miles by race day.

Each morning that I woke up at 6 a.m. to go run in the cold, I got a little bit closer to that goal. Sometimes it was painful, but I felt empowered to know that I had the discipline to improve my health and achieve something I never thought I would.

In the end, the race didn't go perfectly, but I finished with a decent time and, more importantly, with a new appreciation for running and for the importance of goal setting – which I think can also guide us in the spiritual life.

Each Lent, when we decide what we want to sacrifice or do for the season, it is tempting to choose something that we know we can manage. It can also be easy to look at the lives of the saints and think, “There is no way I could ever be that holy.” I certainly feel that way when I learn about the life of Mother Teresa.

But as Pope Francis points out in his apostolic exhortation Rejoice and Be Glad, “we should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable.” 

“...the important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts, rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them,” Pope Francis wrote.

The sacrifices and goals we need to take on this Lent will look different for each of us, because we are all striving for holiness in a unique way. But if I learned anything from my half-marathon experience, it is that if we don't set these big goals, we will settle for being less than what we could be. To use the common baseball analogy, “we can't let the fear of striking out keep us from playing the game.”

This Lent, rather than giving up the same thing that we do every year and already know we can achieve, let's set a big goal for how we want to grow spiritually, and use that to guide us. Let's do something that scares us a little.

Good luck to all of my fellow spiritual goal-setters this Lent, and good luck to all of those running in the race tomorrow. May we all one day get to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).