Monday over Coffee: The Hurdles

 The Hurdles 

Anne Johnson spreads joy through the Gospel ministry of the warm embrace—the hug. Long before I met Anne though, I was friends with her nephew, Scott Sanders. Although we didn’t attend the same schools growing up, we went to the same church and played basketball together. We then attended Baylor at the same time. Apart from being friendly and making really good grades, my main impression of Scott was that though he didn’t speak a lot, when he did, his comments were always insightful and focused on something no one else had thought to say. 

In sports, Scott brought an uncommon focus to the basketball court. He played textbook defense and had a terrific jump shot, quietly racking up points such that he was invariably the high scorer in every game we played. He never complained about the refs or his own playing time and never comported himself like the star of the team that he was.

I had also heard that Scott was very good at track though I never saw him run until I participated in an intramural event at Baylor. I thought I was pretty fast back then, but was quickly disabused of that notion in the 100 meter preliminaries. Having been dispatched to the bleachers, I watched the rest of the meet as a spectator, including Scott’s event, the 110 meter hurdles. 

Scott lined up in the finals against eight other runners who all seemed considerably stronger and bigger than he was at the starting line. As the starter’s gun went off, he didn’t take the lead initially, but quickly fell into a rhythm as each of the ten 42-inch hurdles rose in front of him. At each one, he gained a little more ground then took the lead about halfway through, rising slightly to square up to each hurdle—his lead arm in sync with his lead leg, his trailing arm there to maintain balance as he cleared the top of each hurdle with precision. His motion was both full of grace and machine-like as he pulled away from the field over the last twenty meters. 

Don’t get me wrong, Scott was really fast, but the real difference in the race was that Scott was a hurdler and everyone else was a runner. He knew how to hurdle. This was his event, and he knew it.

Edwin Moses is considered a legend in both the American track and field community and in Olympic history. He won every 400 meter hurdle race he ran for a full decade from 1977 to 1987. “A lot of runners,” Moses said, “get frustrated with the hurdles. You’re going to fall and get beat up. Your knees are going to get scarred. The first time you really crash in the hurdles, if you don’t get up right away— well, you can tell at that moment whether someone’s going to be a hurdler or not. If you can’t run in pain, you won’t be a hurdler.”

I spoke to Anne Johnson a few times over the course of the last year and a half. As someone who thrives on personal contact and face-to-face connection, I can’t think of another person who might be less suited personality-wise to endure a global pandemic. The formidable challenge of social isolation she faced seemed bigger and stronger than she was as she lined up for the race, but she continued to clear the hurdles that rose up before her, not only by staying connected to friends and family via her weekly emails, but connecting countless people to each other during those months in a sort of virtual embrace. Looking back over my own talks and electronic communications with her over the past months, I recognize there was a consistent balance, grace, and rhythm to them as she moved forward even as the hurdles kept arising. Anne lost her son, Doug, in April of this year. But she has pressed on. Back now at church, she recently told me she doesn’t understand why any of this happened. I told her I didn’t either. Then she gave me a hug.  

Anne may use a walker now, but I think both her nephew Scott and Edwin Moses would agree that Anne is a hurdler. Her knees are scarred. She runs in pain, but she knows which event she’s in. She’s trained for it and taught me—as well as many others—that to cross the finish line, we have to know the event we’re in. We’re not mere runners. We’re hurdlers.

God —
Help me to find the rhythm, the balance, and the discipline to excel in the event I’m in—the one with the hurdles. 


—Greg Funderburk

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