Going Off Course

We don’t want to reach the finish line and then discover that we have skipped part of the trail.

by Alan B. Sanderson, MD

Recently I ran a trail half marathon near Bryce Canyon, and I have been thinking about an incident during the race ever since. At about mile 7.5 I was coming down a dirt road at a fast pace, with tall pine trees all around and hoodoos in the cliffs above me to my right. At a small clearing in the woods the course suddenly veered off of the road in a sharp angle onto a single-track side trail to the right. The turn was marked with signs and pink ribbons tied to a tree branch at the turn. I was watching for this turnoff because I had run on these trails before and I had studied the course before race day.

Going Off Course - map-arrows

Satellite view of the tight turn onto the side trail to the right. The dashed path shows where the runner went off course.

But a runner who was a few hundred feet in front of me blew right past the signs and kept running down the road. This surprised and confused me, and I didn’t know how to react in the moment. My first thought was actually, “Oh, maybe she’s not running in the race after all.” I like to go trail running by myself, and occasionally I will happen upon a trail race which is underway. (That actually happened to me just two weeks before the race.) Also there were multiple race distances on the same day, with runners doing 50 kilometers, 50 miles, and 100 miles on overlapping courses. Maybe she was racing one of the other distances?

A few minutes after turning up the side trail it finally occurred to me that I should have asked her. I should have called out, “Hey! You’re going off course!” or “You missed the turn!” But she looked so confident, running right past the signs, that I didn’t even think to question her at first. Obviously she knew where she was going.

Or maybe not.

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Maybe as she ran down the canyon road she said to herself, “Wasn’t there supposed to be another climb on this course? And why are there no other runners on this road all of a sudden?” Or maybe she didn’t realize that she had gone off course until she got to the finish line minutes ahead of everyone else in the race. I can imagine her being upset when she was told that she had not checked in at the aid station at the top of the side trail, so she was disqualified from the race. At that point she could turn around and run 3 miles back up the canyon to find that side trail, climb a mile up the hill to the timing checkpoint at the aid station, then continue on the course back down to the finish line. Or she could just get in her car and drive home in disappointment, without even collecting her finisher’s award.

Life is like a trail race

There are several things we can learn from the analogy of life as a trail race. This is not a perfect analogy, because life isn’t really a race or even a competition, but there is a marked path for us to follow if we want to reach our goal. The course is laid out for us, and the turns, aid stations, and timing checkpoints of a trail race can be likened to the principles, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The analogy of the gospel plan as a “strait and narrow path” is common in the scriptures, and we are told that the essential checkpoints on the path include baptism and confirmation (see 2 Nephi 31:17-18 and 1 Nephi 8:20-21).

President Russell M. Nelson often refers to the “covenant path.” In his first address as President of the Church he said, “Now, to each member of the Church I say: Keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

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It is my responsibility as a runner to know the course and study its turns, so that on race day I can stay on the path and not get lost. All of us are likewise responsible to study Heavenly Father’s plan, so that we will know what is expected of us. There are commandments to keep us on the trail and away from danger, and required ordinances and covenants along the way which we don’t want to pass by without doing. We don’t want to reach the finish line and then discover that we have skipped part of the trail. It is easier and safer to stay on the course than it is to find your way back when you are lost, so take the time to learn the course, and follow the trail markings.

Jesus taught, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt 7:13-14). Not only did Jesus prepare the way and show the way, but in a very real and not just a metaphorical sense, he is the way. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he declared, “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). I trust the Lord, the great race director, to choose a safe path for me and to mark the course well enough for me to follow it. Church leaders and teachers, including faithful parents, help mark the path and show the way, cheering us on race day as we progress through our journey.

When we see someone around us going off course, what are we to do? They may look just as confident as the runner in my story above, and we may think that they must know what they are doing, or that for some reason the course markings don’t apply to them. But would the runner in my story have been offended or upset with me if I had told her she was going off course? Does my fear of offending her absolve me of my neighborly responsibility to help? And what if she did react with anger? Would that mean that I was wrong to warn her?

President Nelson’s first address includes an outreach to those who have gone off course: “Now, if you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope in my heart to please come back. Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there is a place for you in this, the Lord’s Church. You and generations yet unborn will be blessed by your actions now to return to the covenant path. Our Father in Heaven cherishes His children, and He wants each of us to return home to Him. This is a grand goal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to help each of us to come back home.”

To all of my friends that have gone off course, I echo President Nelson in inviting you to come back. We need you with us, because you have talents and strengths that I don’t have. Come back to the safety of the marked path, and don’t miss out on the good things that are happening in the Church today!


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it with them.

About Alan Sanderson

I am a medical doctor, trail runner, and musician.
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