“..Let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” –From Hebrews 12:1
Rainbow Mennonite Church congregant Aaron Barnhart has what you might call “running fever.” He lives to run. Or is it that running is helping him to live? At age 53 he is at optimal health—down to his high school body weight and running 18 minute 5Ks.
Aaron’s running fever is contagious. And if you show any interest in his running prowess, he will pull out his running and dietary apps and charts that record his daily runs, mile splits, and what he has eaten that day, week, and, if you really want to know, the entire year. Running shoes, stretches, injury prevention, chiropractor recommendations, strategy—you get Aaron talking about any of these things and you may just find yourself later that day at the nearest running store, buying a new pair of shoes and stopping for a salad on the way home.
His success might make you think that Aaron has always been a runner. But it turns out that he didn’t even make the college cross country team he tried to walk onto (maybe he should have tried running onto it). And he didn’t know how to work running into his life and career post- college.
Everything changed on November 11, 2000, when Aaron was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. After a successful initial clinical trial, his body eventually built up resistance to the treatment and in 2011, he was at National Institutes of Health (NIH)—this time running a physiological fever. His body had become immunocompromised. He was at death’s door. Thanks to a combination therapy trial, Aaron got back on his feet.
Just before one of his annual checkups at NIH, Aaron happened upon an article by the Olympic middle-distance runner Lauren Fleshman, “10 Reasons the 5K Is Freaking Awesome.” Realizing that he could take up running without the time commitment or battle scars of marathon training, he started his own Couch to 5K training that week. Aaron has been piling on the miles ever since. And loving most every minute of it.
“There is so much to learn about how to run more efficiently, never sacrificing the fun of running,” said Aaron. “Running is way more of a blast than I ever thought it would be.” Hence the meticulous charts, disciplined stretching routines, and his insatiable curiosity to train smarter, not necessarily harder.
Aaron counts himself incredibly fortunate. He is also not one to waste good fortune—hence his current running fever. “This is such a precious time,” he says matter of factly and yet wistfully, “I know how fleeting it all is.”
As a fellow runner, I asked for some running and training tips. “Don’t run with earbuds,” he tells me, explaining that he used to wear earbuds to listen to audiobooks or podcasts, but he stopped.
“I started to notice that almost every other runner I passed by was wearing earbuds. And I saw how the earbuds were acting as a bubble, isolating us from other people we passed by on our runs. That’s when I realized I didn’t need audio stimulation to make it through a 45-minute run, and I discovered that even a simple ‘good morning’ or ‘nice day,’ delivered without something jammed into my ears, connected me to my fellow humans in some small, but meaningful way.”
Aaron continues. “Running gives me an honest assessment of my place in the universe. We are human beings with all these infirmities, limitations, fragilities, and we’re all just trying to move along. The secret to a lasting running career is to train slow, build up volume and pile up miles.”
As Aaron’s pastor and running admirer, I hope to join him, as long as I physically can, in celebrating life, with each step, no matter how slow or challenging. There are no guarantees; injuries, diseases and crisis will and do take hold sometimes. This is something Aaron knows well. Hopefully through it all, we will have those who cheer us on, who train with us, who offer healing and helping hands, urging us on in the races of life, whether a 5K or life itself, with a sense of drive, curiosity, perseverance, gratitude and hope.