Going The Distance - Lessons in Leadership Development

(Editor's note: The interview for this story was conducted in two parts - shortly before and shortly after Jonesboro First United Methodist Church Pastor John Miles participated in the Central Arkansas Half-Ironman Triathlon on August 19, an endurance event consisting of a 1.2-mile swim; 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run.)

By Steve Watkins - Faith & Purpose

When he crossed the finish line, John Miles got an earthly glimpse of Heaven.

Miles had been an accomplished collegiate swimmer during his days at Hendrix College, and in 2002, 20 years later at the age of 46, he still enjoyed running and exercising. The idea of completing a triathlon had entered his mind on more than one occasion.

As pastor of First Methodist Church of Heber Springs at the time, Miles had been instrumental in providing leadership among a group of local churches that had purchased the facilities to launch a Christian Health Center in Cleburne County. The churches had gone out on a financial limb investing a collective $60,000 for a facility that had no clients and no immediate income.

Over time the ministry began developing great potential, but it was in debt.

That's when Miles re-entered the picture in an interesting sort of way.

Without ever having participated in anything close to a half-ironman triathlon, Miles bought a racing bike and made a public commitment to finish  a major endurance event that was only some six months down the calendar.

"It was really kind of nuts, but I wasn't in bad shape and I figured it was something I could do," Miles recalled. "It was kind of going out on a limb, though."

To raise funds for the health center, Miles solicited pledges for every mile of his 70-mile event. With expectations of raising a few thousand dollars, it wasn't long before one church member had pledged $100 per mile.

"By the time the event drew near I had $23,000 in pledges and now I'm having all these horrible thoughts - what if something bad happens and I don't finish? At this point in the game there's really no turning back. I've got to do this thing to bring in the pledges."

So he went through six months of dedicated training and recalls the day of the event like it was yesterday. His parents and immediate family came. Friends and church members caravanned to the event - all to show their support and watch Miles realize a remarkable dream.

"It's really meaningful and special to have those people there, but it also puts some pressure on you, Miles said. "Here you are at the starting line with all these people pulling for you and you've got 70 miles ahead of you. It's a little daunting."

The swim went well and Miles finished in the top half. Not a bad accomplishment among a field of mostly younger participants.

But Miles lost ground in the bike. With 300 participants he had fallen to the bottom third of the pack and had been passed by lots of other athletes.

"I think I might have passed two people while I was on the bike. Everybody else just clocked me."

When he finished the 56-mile ride he was not quite struggling, but the thought of the13-mile run to the finish was still daunting enough.

When he hit the downhill portion at mile nine, Miles regained strength and started passing a few folks. He just kept moving along with a commitment not to walk. At the 12-mile marker, he could hear the announcer in the distance calling out the names of the finishers.

So he kept heading for the finish line, forcing one foot in front of the other.

"Two hundred yards from the finish line I saw my dad sitting under a shade tree, my kids and wife and church members were cheering me on. My mother was taking photos and it all really reminded me of Heaven - how we have to persevere and keep going and never give up, because the finish line is coming.

"At the ultimate finish line we're going to see our family and friends and all those who love the Lord," Miles said. "It really was a spiritual thing as I heard the names of finishers being called out and as I got close and started seeing the people I loved. I just thought - this is Heaven. I'm exhausted, worn out, sick and tired and have spent the last three months of my life focused on this and now I've done it. It was a wonderfully powerful spiritual moment for me."

With that experience four years behind him, Miles came earlier this summer to lead First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro in the midst of training for his third major triathlon completed on August 19. He finished sixth out of 19 in his age group just after noon on a hot summer day as the temperature hit 102 degrees. For Miles, it was a personal best of 4:25.

Miles speaks enthusiastically about the experience of training for distance and endurance events. It's been an important part of his life, particularly in his development as a spiritual leader.

"I think it's fun to have goals and to challenge yourself. It helps me focus," Miles explained. " I do a lot better as a person when I've exercised hard. Running and biking are good times for me to think and pray. It's a nice hobby that gives me something to focus on and to have goals to that I can think about."

The miles of training over the last four years have also given Miles a sense of self-confidence, adventure and have honed his leadership skills to a great extent.

"I've learned that I'm no quitter, but I also don't have to win. I'm perfectly happy to be at the back of the pack. I don't particularly like people passing me, but it doesn't bother me that bad.

"I think it's important to have the kind of dreams that go along with training for events like this. It's not healthy when we don't have dreams and ambitions beyond the four walls of an office.

"The discipline of athletics and the sense of accomplishment and self-worth and adventure are very much a part of leadership. It's made me a better leader. I have more confidence. I know I can do things. If I can finish a marathon (he also has a 4:20 marathon to his credit) I know I can handle today's board meeting."

And while Miles has learned other lessons about things such as disappointment, perseverance and humility, he's learned great lessons from the value of meditation that comes from hours of training in a session.

"There's a point somewhere after a couple of hours of hard exercise where you can get into a real meditative state. It can do something for you that's really wonderful. You go for a 20-mile run and at some point you'll hit an almost euphoric state. The euphoria of hard exercise is one of my best forms of meditation. It's at certain times in that state when I've been closest to God. You're outside and the sun's coming up and you've run 10 or 15 miles and you see the beauty of God's creation and it's just powerful. I don't know that you can get that on a treadmill."