Finish the race
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More than one hour after the gold-medal athlete had crossed the finish line during the marathon in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania entered the stadium. Only a few spectators remained as the lone runner appeared. The athlete's leg was injured and bleeding. He was dehydrated and confused.
As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd cheered in appreciation for what would become one of the most famous last-place finishes in history.
But it wasn't the runner's performance that caught their attention — and the attention of thousands more during the almost five decades since. It was his desire to finish the race, to endure to the end.
After the event in 1968, a reporter asked the runner why he had not quit the race since he had no chance of winning. The Tanzanian athlete was confused. "My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race," he replied. "They sent me to finish" (http://en.beijing2008.cn/education/stories/n214077658.shtml).
Each of us, facing the challenges in our own race of life, should have the same attitude.
"The Apostle Paul likened life to a race," said President Thomas S. Monson in last April's general conference. "To the Hebrews he urged, 'Let us lay aside … the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us' (Hebrews 12:1).
"In our zeal, let us not overlook the sage counsel from Ecclesiastes: 'The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong' (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Actually, the prize belongs to him or her who endures to the end."
Elder Robert D. Hales said in the April 1998 general conference that we cannot expect to learn endurance if we have developed the habit of quitting when things get difficult.
"Examples of faithfully enduring to the end are taught by prophets of all ages as they demonstrate courage while enduring trials and tribulations to carry forth the will of God," he said. "Our greatest example comes from the life of our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ."
Emulating the Savior and enduring to the end is well worth the effort. The Lord has promised eternal life to those who keep His commandments and finish the race.
"Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life" (2 Nephi 31:20).
A poet expressed the same sentiment in the following verse:
"Stick to your task till it sticks to you;
"Beginners are many, but enders are few.
"Honor, power, place, and praise
"Will always come to the one who stays.
"Stick to your task till it sticks to you;
"Bend at it, sweat at it, smile at it too;
"For out of the bend and the sweat and the smile
"Will come life's victories, after awhile" ("Stick to Your Task," in Best-Loved Poems of the LDS People, ed. Jack M. Lyon and others (1996), pp. 255–56).
Speaking during the 2012 general Young Women meeting, President Monson said the definition of "endure" is to "withstand with courage."
"I have spoken over the years with many individuals who have told me, 'I have so many problems, such real concerns. I'm overwhelmed with the challenges of life. What can I do?' I have offered to them, and I now offer to you, this specific suggestion: seek heavenly guidance one day at a time. Life by the yard is hard; by the inch it's a cinch. Each of us can be true for just one day — and then one more and then one more after that — until we've lived a lifetime guided by the Spirit, a lifetime close to the Lord, a lifetime of good deeds and righteousness."
Indeed, the rewards for those who endure and finish the race of life are great. For "he that endureth in faith and doeth my will, the same shall overcome" (Doctrine and Covenants 63:20).
Most people have forgotten the name of the man who won gold for the marathon in the 1968 Olympics. But the story of John Stephen Akhawari lives on.
After the heroic defeat, many wrote about the athlete's endurance to a last place finish. "Today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in human spirit, a performance that gives meaning to the word courage," wrote one reporter after the race. "For some, the only reward is a personal one — the knowledge that they finished what they set out to do" ("The Last African Runner," Olympiad Series, written, directed, and produced by Bud Greenspan, Cappy Productions, 1976, videocassette).
Elder Hales said Akhawai was able to finish the race "because he knew who he was — an athlete representing the country of Tanzania. He knew his purpose — to finish the race. He knew that he had to endure to the finish, so that he could honorably return home to Tanzania.
"Our mission in life is much the same. We were not sent by Father in Heaven just to be born. We were sent to endure and return to Him with honor" (April 1998 general conference, "Behold, We Count Them Happy Which Endure").
President Monson wrote in 1989, "In life, as in business, there has always been a need for those persons who could be called finishers. Their ranks are few, their opportunities many, their contributions great.
"From the very beginning to the present time, a fundamental question remains to be answered by each who runs the race of life. Shall I falter, or shall I finish? On the answer await the blessings of joy and happiness here in mortality and eternal life in the world to come" (First Presidency Message, "Finishers Wanted," Ensign, June 1989).