As a boy, Philip Lotspeich never dreamed he'd be able to do what he did on the last Sunday in August, in hot, humid Louisville, Kentucky. Lotspeich, the Coordinator for Church Growth in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) swam 2.4 miles, biked 112, and then finished his first Ironman with a marathon 26.2 mile run. His official time as he crossed the finish line, 14 hours, 43 minutes and 14 seconds.
"The heat was brutal," says Lotspeich. "But the lead up to the event, the preparation, the not being able to sleep the night before, the trying not to think too much so that you don’t get overwhelmed, was more difficult than doing it."
Even though Lotspeich chipped a tooth and bruised his hip and foot when he hit a rail as volunteers pulled him out of the water he constantly felt "some sort of serenity" and peace. "It wasn't easy, I hurt, my legs were cramping, I had blisters on my feet," says Lotspeich. "But going in I really wanted to enjoy the experience," he says. "I wanted it to be about the joy of being in God's creation, not about the dread if I didn't make it."
As he worked physically, mentally, spiritually, for nearly 15 hours, Lotspeich overcame some of his "emotional baggage" from his childhood. "I was a chubby kid growing up," says Lotspeich. "In elementary school I got teased to the point where I didn't want to go to school." As he grew, Lotspeich got more athletic, playing high school football, but the ups and downs of weight gain and loss followed him.
In 2002 weighing 340 pounds, Lotspeich went to Monterrey, Mexico for adjustable gastric band surgery. He thought his struggle was finally behind him but then he gained weight again. "I was up to 260 pounds after I got settled into my job here," says Lotspeich. "I was getting uncomfortable again when my wife Linda decided to do a three day breast cancer walk. I wanted to do that with her, but knew I had to get in shape before the event which was in November of 2009." So Lotspeich started training. He ran a marathon in Louisville in October then did the three day walk. Amazed at how he was starting feel and how encouraging total strangers were to him, he was hooked. "At both events everyone was so excited for each other," says Lotspeich, "There was such a feeling of community, camaraderie, among strangers."
Lotspeich began to run in events every weekend. He's done three marathons, including the Ironman, and three half marathons in the past year. Each time he's been struck by a spiritual sense, that encouragement comes when it's needed most. "I met a guy named Riley at the Ironman pre-race banquet. He was from Texas like I am, so we struck up a conversation. When I was really hurting Sunday at mile 16 in the second loop of the Marathon I ran into him. He looked at me and said ‘you can’t do this on your own can you. God reminded me of that during my bike ride.'" Those words were exactly what Lotspeich needed to hear. In that moment he knew he was going to make it home to the finish line. He and Riley worked together, running when they could, walking when they had to and finished together.
When Lotspeich was done, he thought about all of those along the way, who had encouraged him by shouting out "you look great, keep on going." Even though he knew he didn't look good, even though he felt like stopping, those words made all the difference. "The ironman is an incredibly individual sport," says Lotspeich, "but everyone — the volunteers, the athletes, those cheering – helped each other, wanted the best for each other, wanted everyone to finish."
He pauses allowing this latest experience to sink in. "What if we did this in our churches?" he wonders. "Even with those who think differently than us, too often we say 'stop, you can’t do it that way' instead of 'I want you to succeed, you are not alone.' It would be amazing if we offered each other this kind of hope that we have in Jesus Christ."