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By Ashley Burns

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7

It would be hard for any Average Joe to keep his legs from collapsing after enduring 26.2 miles of leg-pounding, foot-smacking pavement. For elite runners, however, this is nothing extraordinary. They run long, and they run hard in order to win—either for the personal gratification of finishing the race or for bragging rights in their sport.

But, like any stereotype, there are exceptions—like the one in this story. It is the story of one elite runner who, win or lose, pounds those 26.2 miles to give the glory to someone else. That 5-2, slender figure who runs like a cheetah on the hunt is Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, a.k.a. Catherine the Great.

Her nickname didn’t come to Ndereba by chance. The greatness inside her was revealed through times of personal adversity. And it has been her faith during those times that has led her to victory.

Ndereba started running at the age of 12. Growing up in a small village in Kenya where running was customary, she would run to school, run to the store, run anywhere she needed to be. With limited public transportation, “foot’n it” was the easiest way to get around. “I grew up in the country and not in the city,” Ndereba said. “Whatever we did, we had to use our legs. We had to run to school. We did not have school buses. We had to take a full set of clothes to school, and a full set of clothes back home.”

In 1995, Ndereba began her professional running career, representing her home nation. And she has served her country well, becoming one of the most acclaimed female runners in Kenya’s history. But, as illustrated in Ndereba’s career, performing at the elite level is more challenging than fame’s glamour would make it seem. Running up to 100 miles a week— many times being an ocean away from her family—and enduring strenuous physical and nutritional regimens, a normal life isn’t an option for Ndereba. Yet, all of these practices put her at the top of the game.

Philippians 4:13 (NIV)—“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”— has been a verse that Ndereba holds dear, and she speaks about it often. She has found the true meaning of being able to do even the hardest things with the strength of Christ.

 
"In the Christian life, if we don't sacrifice, we won't be able to overcome."
“I Have Fought the Good Fight”
Even after winning the Boston Marathon in 2000 and beating the former Olympic marathon champ Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, Ndereba was left off of the 2000 Kenyan Olympic roster. But, if asked, she’d say that it was the Lord’s timing. Instead of competing in the Olympics, she was able to run the Chicago Marathon and earn her fastest time ever. The next year, she came back to Chicago and smashed the world record, finishing in 2:18:47.

“I didn’t see it as not partaking in the Olympics,” she said. “I just saw it as not being God’s time. But He always does come at the right time, and that is why I kept waiting on God.”

For many Olympic hopefuls, there is always the illusion of a chance to compete in the next games. In 2004, Ndereba was finally promised a spot on Kenya’s team. But that June, Ndereba was competing in a 10k race for the Kenyan Prisons (where she is employed) when every elite runner’s nightmare chased her down. In the last leg of the race, she pulled her left hamstring, causing her to finish the 10k in third place.

She was crushed—just like her dreams of an Olympic debut—as preparation for a marathon takes at least three months. The pulled hamstring had put her a month behind in training.

But Ndereba wasn’t entirely ready to give up. She realized that she was going to have to sacrifice something in order to be able to fulfill her dream: her own physical comfort. What increased in its place was her faith. “If you have nothing to sacrifice, you have nothing to be,” Ndereba said. “In the Christian life, if we don’t sacrifice, we won’t be able to overcome.” Ndereba headed to Philadelphia for intense physical therapy, and with rehabilitation she was able to compete in the Olympics, just two months post-injury.

“I Have Finished the Race”
Ndereba’s Olympic race was far from easy. Her body fought hard, but her leg was still recovering from the injury. Every step shot pain into her left hamstring. Still, she kept fighting. She had trained nearly 10 years for this race, and she wasn’t going to let it pass her by without pouring out every ounce of passion and toughness she had. But even her own effort would not have been enough. She still needed her Lord.

“It was a tough day, but the Lord was with me,” she recalled. “He told me He would never leave me, just like in the book of Isaiah. I didn’t have enough training, but I knew that I had to keep my trust in the Lord. So, that is what I did—I did what I could do; and what I could not do, I just left it to Him. He is the Lord Almighty, and He can do anything.”

With two-thirds of the race behind her Ndereba began to struggle; and with less than 10 miles to go, she hit her wall. “I thought that I could not do it, and then I called upon the name of the Lord,” she said.

Her prayers were answered affirmatively.

After many miles had swept by, Ndereba found herself within steps of well-known Japanese runner Mizuki Noguchi…and first place.

Pushing through fear and pain, Ndereba weaved her way into the number two position. She heard roars from the crowd telling her that if she could just run two more kilometers, she could catch Noguchi. But as the end approached, Ndereba struggled even to keep her place in second.

She kept praying.

“All through the race, I reminded myself that the Bible says that gold and silver belong to Him (Haggai 2:8), so I was asking God to please give me what belongs to Him.”

He did.

Ndereba finished in second place and earned the Olympic silver medal. “I thank the Lord so much. He never gave me a bronze, because He owns silver and gold,” she said. “In my heart, I do believe that it is just a matter of the color. Because to me, it is my gold.”


Ndereba with the 2006 Rye by the Sea organizers (L to R): Diann Sherbak, Fouad Faris, (Ndereba), Catherine Plourde, Peter Schaeffer and Matt Carpenter
Rye by the Sea:

The 11th annual Rye by the Sea event will take place June 2 in Portsmouth, N.H. This unique outreach sponsored by Bethany Church and FCA offers participants a chance to run a 5k, 10k or 10k duathalon. While the race does not have a post-race altar call, it does offer significant exposure to the gospel.

“It sets a tone that a lot of these athletes just aren’t used to hearing,” said Matt Carpenter, director of Rye by the Sea operations and FCA volunteer. “It certainly has an impact.”

This year’s special guest will be Patti Dillon, former top world marathoner. For more information about the 2007 Rye by the Sea event, go to www.ryebythesea.org.

“I Have Kept the Faith”
Realizing that she didn’t create her own talent, but that it is a gift from God, Ndereba “keeps the faith” by serving God the best way she knows how: running. As a world-class athlete, she can run in any race she chooses, which she does with the sole purpose of giving back to her Lord and Savior.

It was this priority that brought her to a smaller race early in 2006—one that The
Boston Globe may not have reported, but a race that showed the power of Christ’s love through the sport.

In May 2006, Ndereba ran the 10k Rye by the Sea in Portsmouth, N.H. A unique race combining endurance with speed, Rye by the Sea offers participants the chance to run a 5k, 10k or 10k duathalon and is organized by Bethany Church. FCA New England Regional Director Fouad Faris serves as a committee member.

According to Faris, Ndereba’s involvement in 2006 was a blessing to all who participated. “Many people in the running community really see running as their worship,” he said. “That is what they do—that is their Sunday, their weekend. They go from race to race. It is really where they live their lives, and many of them haven’t been around people of faith in a very real way.”

Ndereba’s presence and participation in the event demonstrated how an elite runner can give all of her heart on the course and give all the glory to God when the race is over.

“If you are running this race knowing there is a prize at the end, and if we are going to stay focused in running with a lot of perseverance, we have to know the prize is the Crown of Life,” Ndereba said at a pre-race speaking event. That was just before she hit the course, passed her competitors and finished with the race’s best time for the year.

As she breezed through the field of the Rye by the Sea 10k, it was clear: Ndereba’s future may be full of victories, it may be full of defeats, but at that moment, she was a glimpse of greatness. Not her own, but that of her Savior.

Photo courtesy of Diann Sherbak

Catherine Ndereba holds more than a handful of accolades.  Below are just a few highlighting her career and success since 2000:

2000- Won Boston and Chicago Marathons
2001- Won Boston and Chicago Marathons (beat the world record)
2002- Placed 2nd at Boston and Chicago Marathons
2003- Won IAAF World Championship Marathon in Paris, Placed 2nd in the Flora London Marathon, and placed 2nd in the ING New York Marathon
2004- Won Boston Marathon, Placed 2nd in the Olympic Marathon in Athens, and was a World Champion Silver Medalist
2005- Won Boston Marathon, Placed 2nd at IAAF World Championship in Helsinki
2006- Placed 3rd in the ING New York Marathon
2007- Won Kenya’s Prisons Cross Country Championships and plans on continuing to compete this year.

(Prior to these statistics, Catherine was also named Road Runner of the year by Runner’s World in 1998 and Road Racer of the year by Running Times in 1196,1997,1999)

*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.


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