Originally published in Assist News
One of the world’s fastest marathon runners and a pastor who has defied his doctor’s prediction that he would never run 26.2 miles — both men from California — will join elite athletes in Antarctica next January for a competition that’s as tough to wrap your mind around as it is to complete.
Ryan Hall, the American record holder in half marathons (59:43) and who has run the marathon faster than any American in history (2:04:58), and up-and-coming runner Pastor Matthew Barnett of the Los Angeles Dream Centre are official contenders in the 2017 World Marathon Challenge, during which competitors run seven marathons (26.2 miles each) within seven days on all seven continents.
For those challenged by math, reason or logic, that’s running 183.4 miles over seven days in Antarctica, South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
Jet lag between race venues, lack of sleep, extreme hot and cold temperatures, and fatigue will test runners’ spiritual, emotional and physical strength.
“I’m going to run as fast as I can for the first 100 yards just to say that I outran Ryan Hall, who is one of the greatest runners of all time,” says Barnett, 42, laughing at himself not Hall.
There’s nothing light-hearted about either man’s motivation to participate in the contest of a lifetime: It’s all about the 900 people who call the Dream Centre home or receive its life-giving ministry, say both men, who are competing in the WMC to raise awareness and money.
Pastor Tommy Barnett of Phoenix First Assembly of God co-founded the Dream Centre with son Matthew in 1994 after purchasing the Queen of Angels Hospital, a Los Angeles landmark, for $3.9 million. It has thrown a spiritual and physical lifeline to people on skid row since 1996.
At a time when the Dream Centre is facing its biggest financial challenges — it has grown 30% over 18 months — Barnett is preparing to confront the most rigorous athletic competition of his life, so that homeless, addicted, and sex-trafficked people in Los Angeles continue to get a second chance.
In the lead-up to the WMC, Barnett is preaching a series called #FACEYOURSELF, encouraging Dream Centre residents to stick to their goals of staying clean and sober, getting a GED, and completing a Bible-based discipleship program.
#FACEYOURSELF is also an online video designed to increase awareness of and financial support for the Dream Centre. It has garnered the attention of major television networks and cable programs like Sports Centre because of the WMC’s incredible demands on the male and female athletes who compete.
“I’m telling everybody who is facing seemingly impossible situations to face those things head on,” Barnett says.
“People who are in our rehab program are coming up to me saying, ‘Pastor, I’m not going back to my addiction. I’m going to finish the program. If you can do this (the WMC), I can finish my program,’” Barnett says.
Running God’s way
For Hall, the WMC represents a second chance to run “God’s way” free of caffeine addiction and legalism — religiously training and eating too much or too little — factors which led the two-time Olympian to tell stunned sponsors, coaches and other professional runners he was leaving the sport this year.
Physically, Barnett and Hall are increasing endurance and strength by adding miles to their daily and weekly training regiments for the WMC but, just as important, each is listening to the Holy Spirit in response to prayer about his spirit, soul and body.
Hall, a solid Christian and close friend of Barnett, bowed out of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, retiring from professional running in January — as part of a deeper quest for God.
Barnett, who directs the Dream Centre’s multiple outreaches to the down and out and serves as pastor at nearby Angelus Temple, has finished four major runs – two full- and two half-marathons – since blood clots almost completely blocked both of his lungs in 2012.
Though not a runner at the time, Barnett was struck by his cardiologist’s tongue-in-cheek proclamation, “It looks like you’ll never run a marathon in your lifetime.”
“When he said that, at the time, I had never run a marathon but something about those words — that something couldn’t be done — stirred me on the inside.
“I said, ‘You know when I get healthy from this, I’m going to run a marathon.’”
During eight months of intense rehabilitation, really “learning to breathe again,” Barnett incrementally increased his walks around the block to one-quarter mile jogs and later three-minute runs before running the Los Angeles Marathon in 2013.
Hall and Barnett became immediate friends three years ago after the Los Angeles pastor — who was getting deeper into the sport — contacted the great long distance runner at his home in Redding, California, where wife Sara and their four adopted Ethiopian daughters call Bethel Church their spiritual base.
Frustrated by professional running and very much into weight training at the time, Hall spoke at the Dream Centre in 2015 about the joys and — mostly — agonies of running.
In June of this year in training for the biggest competition of his life, Barnett sent Hall a text message about the WMC, unsure of his friend’s response to running-related events.
“I’ll never forget getting the text from Pastor Matthew as I’m sitting in the weight room between exercises,” says Hall, recalling a mixture of disdain and delight at the prospect of running again.
“Something about it captured me the same way I felt as a 13-year-old boy when I first ran around Big Bear Lake with my dad,” says Hall, recalling the 15-mile jog when he sacrificed ambitions to play Major League Baseball, embracing God’s call to run in high school and at Stanford University.
“It was kind of a similar experience when I got Pastor Matthew’s text. Something that just kind of grabbed me about it, and I could feel God on it.
“So I was like man that’s amazing what Pastor Matthew is doing and the cause he’s doing it for. I’d just love to be a part of that, and also just get to hang out with Pastor Matthew for a whole week.
I texted him back and said, ‘Okay, if you’re looking for company, I’d like to join you.’”
“At that moment in time it felt kind of weird sending that text because I still hated running,” says Hall, 33, who is now putting on more miles in preparation for the WMC than he did training for events as a professional athlete.
In August, Hall spoke a second time at the Dream Centre, citing Jesus’ words about the narrow gate (Matthew 7:23-24) in a #FACEYOURSELF message.
Training for the WMC
Both athletes are still texting encouraging messages as each trains — Barnett around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Hall in Redding – for the WMC.
Sponsors, runners and media are lining up with promises of support and advice – most of which is useful – but Barnett and Hall say they’re tuned into the Holy Spirit more than the voices of coaches or trainers. Barnett no longer runs with a headset, instead communing with God.
He is, however, seriously embracing one nugget of counsel from an experienced WMC winner.
Becca Pizzi, who won the women’s WMC title this year, says Barnett needs to adjust to running tired.
“That’s the whole key to this thing,” says Pizzi, who set a new record for females in 2016 with the fastest time frame – six days, 18 hours and 38 minutes. “Learning to run with tired legs and fatigue is key.”
Barnett thinks he’s getting close to the point Pizzi describes.
“It’s already tough. I mean the miles are getting hard,” says Barnett who, at age 42, is running 70 to 100 miles per week combined with strength training and has dropped about 33 pounds. “I feel like I’m always tight, always a little sore.
“When I start to feel it, I say how can I do this seven times, on seven continents, in seven days, in seven different climates,” he says.
Hall and other runners who are part of a club at the Dream Centre encourage Barnett when he or other members have doubts.
“It feels more possible now than it did when I started because I’ve been training but there are times when there’s a great sense of fear.
“My fear is not fatigue or pain; it’s an injury so dramatic that I can’t push through. That’s something I’m praying against,” says Barnett, whose wife Caroline and daughter Mia will run a marathon and half-marathon, respectively, during one of the seven days.
Hall, featured in Sports Illustrated and Runners World magazines, says his competition in the WMC doesn’t signal a return to professional running or another Olympic-bid, but it does give him a second chance at doing a major event with the Holy Spirit as his coach.
“The ways things ended didn’t quite feel right to me,” says Hall.
He says going through the narrow gate as described by Jesus has led him to the promised land after four years of running around the wilderness.
“I’m not saying like I’m making a comeback — or that I’m going to run the Olympics one day or anything like that — I’m saying I want to do things right. Wherever God wants to take me, I want to go there,” he says.
Hall’s wife, Sara, is an elite runner who will accompany her husband with daughters Hana, Mia, Jasmine and Lily, ages 16 to five, respectively.
Sara Hall is the 2012 US National Cross Country Champion and gold medallist at the Pan-American Games. She has represented the US at three World Indoor Track and Field Championships and a World Cross Country Championship.
The Halls hope someday to return to Ethiopia, the native home of their adopted daughters, as missionaries sent from Bethel. They founded the Hall Steps Foundation in 2008 in partnership with World Vision and other relief organisations, digging water wells in Zambia and building a clinic in Kenya. One of foundation’s primary missions is providing family-based care for children.