President Spencer W. Kimball once said: “There are great challenges ahead of us, giant opportunities to be met. I welcome that exciting prospect and feel to say to the Lord, humbly, ‘Give me this mountain, give me these challenges.”
In my 59 years on the planet, I do not ever remember having this state of mind. Yet, I have learned that overcoming challenges and mountains are a good part of why we have been sent to have this mortal experience.
Mortal life is filled with countless challenges and experiences which can either strengthen us or cause us to step back and not rise to the occasion. Many of my most difficult challenges have caused me to have my best opportunities of personal and spiritual growth. Forty years ago I was found in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah diligently studying for the time I would spend serving as a missionary in the Guatemala City Mission. I was studying a language which I had found to be most difficult in high school: Spanish! I had been a most shy and reserved individual up to that point, yet I was to spend two years serving people in a language which was not my natural tongue and having to speak with people…something which had previously cause me much anxiety.
My time as a missionary in Guatemala was the most difficult time of my life to that point, yet at the same time it was the most rewarding and spiritual time I had experienced in life to that point. I returned home with an ability to communicate in a language which has served me well since completing my mission in 1981. The reserved and shy individual I had been had grown into someone who ended up with a career of teaching and coaching football. In other words I was reserved and shy no more!
One of my favorite accounts of enduring to the end and finishing the race involves a marathon runner from long ago. It helps remind me that enduring, despite difficulties, is more important than simply winning.
During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, John Stephen Akhwari placed last in the marathon, yet major sports magazines named him as one of two “top international Olympians” that year. While losing the race, Mr. Akhwari won the admiration of untold thousands because he embodied the spirit of a true Olympian as he finished despite setbacks.
The marathon is a foot race of more than 26 miles. World class runners complete this distance in just over two hours. Athletes who compete in this race must train for years in order to reach the highest levels of competition. The Olympics present the best runners in the world. In 1968 John Stephen Akhwari was just one of four athletes from his home country who earned the right to compete in the Mexico City Olympics. He was actually a peasant farmer who did his training in his spare time.
The starting field at the 1968 Olympics featured 75 runners…18 of those would not finish the race as the altitude would take its toll.
The best athletes in the world that year faced a common challenge when they arrived in Mexico City: its altitude. At 7350 feet, it was the highest elevation at which any Summer Olympics had been held.
From the country of Tanzania, where the elevation is just above sea level, Mr. Akhwari suffered leg cramps early in the race. Yet he continued to run. More than six miles into the race he collided with other runners and fell, dislocating and badly cutting a knee and injuring a shoulder. He got up and continued to run. By sunset, most of his fellow competitors had finished the race. Wounded and in lots of pain, he continued to run. Better said, he continued to hobble his way towards the end of the race. Most spectators had left the stadium where the marathon’s finish line was located. Those spectators who remained in the stadium noticed lights flashing on a vehicle escorting a lone runner and cheered as the Tanzanian hobbled along the track to finish the race more than an hour after the winner.
It’s doubtful that anyone present realized they were witnessing a great moment in the history of the Olympics. Many journalists and people posting on various media have told the story of Mr. Akhwari’s personal victory. When asked why he had continued to the end of the race when his injuries would have caused many runners to drop out, Mr. Akhwari replied simply: “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. My country sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.”
The Apostle Paul said: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)
In the Old Testament we read, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
The poet Dennis Brutus wrote:
“Endurance is the ultimate virtue…More, the essential thread on which existence is strung when one is stripped to nothing else…and not to endure is despair.”
President Thomas S. Monsoon stated: “The difficulties which come to us present us with the real test of our ability to endure. A fundamental question remains to be answered by each of us: Shall I falter, or shall I finish? Some do falter as they find themselves unable to rise above their challenges. To finish involves enduring to the very end of life itself.” (October 2013 General Conference)
Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke of John Stephen Akhwari’s determination to finish his race back in the 1968 Olympics:
“He knew who he was—an athlete representing the country of Tanzania. He knew his purpose—to finish the race. He knew that he had to endure to the finish, so that he could honorably return home to Tanzania. Our mission in life is much the same. We were not sent by Father in Heaven just to be born. We were sent to endure and return to Him with honor.
Dwelling in the world is part of our mortal test. The challenge is to live in the world yet not partake of the world’s temptations which will lead us away from our spiritual goals. When one of us gives up and succumbs to the wiles of the adversary, we may lose more than our own soul. Our surrender could cause the loss of souls who respect us in this generation. Our capitulation to temptation could affect children and families for generations to come.” (April 1998 General Conference)
President Monson has told each of us that we are runners in the race of life. He also says: “Comforting is the fact that there are many runners. Reassuring is the knowledge that our Eternal Scorekeeper is understanding. Challenging is the truth that each must run. But you and I don not run alone. That vast audience of family, friends, and leaders will cheer our courage, will applaud our determination as we rise from our stumbling and pursue our goal…Let us shed any thought of failure…Let us seek; let us obtain the prize prepared for all, even exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God.” (October 1993 Ensign Magazine)
Elder Jospeh B. Wirthlin said: “An obvious parallel between life and a marathon is the necessity to run diligently and endure to the end. Among his final words to his people, Nephi told them: “And now,…after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay…Ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ…and endure to the end.” (2 Nephi 31: 19-20). (October 1998 General Conference)
John Akhwari had prepared for his race. He trained and conditioned his body and mind so he was able to finish it.
Enduring to the end is a very important doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To endure to the end, we must prepare and train—not by running a race route before a cheering crowd, but by studying and following the path the Lord has set. We must know his doctrine and teachings. Through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can get up and continue our “race in life” even if we stumble and fall along the way.
I have stumbled and fallen along the way more times than I can remember. Each time I have been strengthened by those who love and care for me, amongst which is Our Heavenly Father, who have helped me rise once again. In the end I become stronger because of the challenges which caused me to falter a bit along this race of life we share.
We were not meant to walk this mortal path on earth alone. We have been promised the strength and power to have joy and success along our journey called “life”. Studying and following the path the Lord has set will bring us happiness and joy in this life, while leading us back to the eternal home Our Father has prepared for us.
The Savior of the world has told us: “Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endure to the end will I give eternal life.” (3 Nephi 15:9)
I know this to be true. I pray that each of us will always use the innate powers within us to endure to the end despite the difficulties which will rise along our way. We are meant to succeed and succeed we will if we rise above and fulfill what we are capable of.
Just sharing a bit more of my…VIEW FROM THE SIDELINE…