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Triathlon a spiritual race for SBTS student

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student Michael Diaz recently faced the most arduous day of his seminary career.

But it wasn’t difficult because of tests, papers or staying up late to parse Hebrew verbs. Diaz, a master of arts student from Ocean Springs, Miss., completed Louisville’s Ironman Triathlon Aug. 30, which involved a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, for sure,” Diaz said. “I’ve been a soccer player for many, many years and been racing triathlon. But it was definitely the most pain I’ve ever experienced, but I knew I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to stick with it. I’d come too far to stop.”

In addition to the grueling distance, Diaz had other obstacles to overcome in order to finish the race. Forty miles into the bike ride the chain on his bicycle broke, forcing him to wait an hour by the road for a mechanic. Then during the run, he experienced stomach problems that forced him to walk at times when he physically couldn’t continue running.

Stomach problems are particularly devastating during a triathlon, Diaz said, because to have enough energy to complete the race, an athlete must ingest thousands of calories during the event. The diet of a triathlete includes energy gels, power bars and Gatorade. Yet after eating 2,000 calories during the bike ride, Diaz’s physical problems prevented him from continuing to eat during the run, he said.

“The key is whoever can eat the most will have the most energy for the run,” he said.

In preparation for the race Diaz trained for eight months, putting in as much as 15 to 20 hours per week at times. He previously had participated in six other triathlons but never one as long as the Ironman.

After the race, it took several days for Diaz to recover. He said the most uncomfortable part of recovering was taking an “ice bath” immediately following the race. In order to prevent intense muscle soreness, he filled his bathtub with 27 pounds of ice and sat in it for five minutes.

Racing has a spiritual, as well as physical aspect for Diaz.

“With endurance sports, it’s all about you — what you can do, what you are capable of doing,” he said. “It gets really depressing to see a lot of the people I race and train with. Everything they’re living for is this race. They’re searching for their identity in their accomplishment.”

But things are different for Diaz because of his faith in Christ.

“Whether I finished the race or didn’t, whether I won it or came in last place, it didn’t mean that much. It was anticlimactic in that aspect. The next day I couldn’t move my body, but it didn’t matter. I still had my family and my friends. That stuff is a lot more important.”

Another spiritual aspect of competing in a triathlon is battling pride, he said. Getting in peak physical condition at times made Diaz take an inappropriately high view of himself and an inappropriately low view of others he said. But God used the experience to make him more Christ-like, Diaz said.

Pride was a struggle, he said, “because most people I know can’t do that. It’s hard to be humble sometimes. When you put some sort of false humility up and say, ‘It wasn’t a big deal’ or ‘I’m just glad to be done,’ in the back of your mind you think, ‘Yeah, I did just do that.'”

One source of humility was knowing God gave him the health to train and compete, Diaz said.

Despite the pain involved in completing the Ironman, Diaz plans to compete in one or two more triathlons this year, though none as long as the Ironman. For now, however, he plans to spend more time with his family and recuperate.

He is grateful for the witness God allowed him to be through his training and competition.

“I made so many relationships and have been able to be a solid influence and witness to a lot of people who are hostile to the Gospel in a lot of ways,” he said. “I can’t tell how many people I met who lived in Louisville forever but didn’t know what was going on at the seminary.”
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky., and a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.