Jackson County, Michigan, where I live, is not for the faint of heart. Not if you’re a runner, that is.

It’s not that the hills are exceedingly steep, or excessively long. They’re just everywhere. It seems you’re always on a grade, either huffing toward a rise or coasting gingerly down the other side, planting your feet carefully because it’s a whole lot easier to mess up a knee or an ankle running downhill than it is when you’re climbing.

It was on a rare stretch of sun-dappled flatland that my friend Jess said to her husband, Phil, “You need to tell him. Tell Ron.”

Hearing my name, I glanced back.

Conversation during our early morning training runs was not uncommon. And really, they weren’t our training runs. They were Jess’s. She was in her first year of marathoning and still trying to get a handle on the whole issue of pace. Distance running is all about pace — run too fast and you’ll burn out early; run too slow and you will quite literally be an also-ran. So Phil and I, who have been running for years, were there for the same reason there is a mechanical bunny at a greyhound track. We were pacesetters.

An important key to pacesetting — one that just about every endurance athlete knows — is that the ideal pace is generally the most rapid one at which you can still comfortably carry on a conversation. So talking is good.

And that’s why I fell back into stride with my two friends and asked, “Tell me what?”

Phil shrugged. At least I think he shrugged. Either that or he’d just stepped funny on a seam in the blacktop.

“It’s that guy at work I told you about. Marty.”

“The one you brought to Westwinds a couple of weeks ago?”

“That’s the one.”

It was not unusual for our conversation to turn to church and spirituality. I had pastored a large church for nearly a decade and a half before taking on an international speaking and consulting ministry. I had even baptized Phil, for that matter.

“He seemed like a pretty nice guy,” I said. “Pretty garrulous.” I pulled in a breath, a deep one, through my nose. The roadway was starting to rise again, and garrulous was a bigger word than I wanted to use at our present speed. Did I mention that Jess had finished tenth in her last marathon? So we were going at a pretty good clip.

I caught my wind. “You work with Marty, right?”

“Uh-huh. He’s in the office next to mine. We usually grab lunch together. But lately, he’s been — well — ducking me. I’ve asked him to get together with me several times over the past few days, and he’s always had something else going on.”

I knew where this was going.

“You didn’t shove him a gospel tract or something, did you?”

Phil snorted. “Of course not. But I did... well, I did tell him about the gospel.”

Jess surged slightly ahead. Taking the hint, Phil and I picked up our pace a little. We rounded a turn and met with a slight headwind. I pulled ahead and let Jess and Phil fall in behind me. We’d be running in this direction all the way back to my place, and we would take turns pulling and drafting — either blocking the wind or running in the lee of the lead runner.

“So,” I called back over my shoulder, “what did you tell him?”

“You know,” Phil said, “that... um... that he was a sinner and Jesus died for his sins, and how... well, how he needed Jesus.”

I glanced back again. “In other words, you told him he’s totally inadequate, and you’ve got the cure.”

“Now, come on...” Phil blustered. But after a long moment of silence, he conceded, “Well — yeah. I guess I did.”

“Then no wonder.”

“But Phil’s got to do that,” Jess pointed out, her voice steady. I envied her. Even without looking, I could tell that she was fresh, not even slightly winded. The woman has lungs. “We’re commanded to do that. It’s in the Bible.”