On Friday September 1, 2023, at 4 PM in Chamonix, France, 2,814 runners began the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 171 km race through France, Italy, Switzerland and back to Chamonix. The race course involves over 10,000 metres of mountainous ascents. Runners have 46.5 hours to complete the course and most take 32-40 hours. Even after the race formally ends, determined runners will straggle across the finish line. UTMB is “the Olympics” of ultra-marathon running.

Before they get to the start line, runners have to complete qualifying races in the two years prior to the UTMB. Longer races, say 160 km, earn more points. Then the runners have to enter a lottery to be selected. Those with more points have a better chance of being chosen. Once selected, they must pay an entry fee of 355 Euros, cough up money for their flights and accommodation, buy medical insurance and a required kit that includes hot and cold weather gear (temperatures drop dramatically with elevation and nightfall) and be prepared to cope with extreme exhaustion, sleep deprivation, changeable weather, blisters, darkness, rocky tails, stomach upsets and disorientation. After all their qualification and training, roughly 40 percent of all these experienced ultra runners will fail to complete the race.

It is a “suffer-fest”.

This is all for the glory…at least among ultra-runners… of being a finisher. Many more thousands aspire to compete in this physical and psychological event than can be accommodated. They are willing to work just for the chance.

I thought of the UTMB and the competitors’ willingness to embrace this kind of pain and sacrifice for a chance to complete the race as I read this week’s gospel, with Jesus’ invitation to “take up your cross and follow me.”


In last week’s gospel Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God in response to Jesus’ question about Who do you say I am. Then Jesus told Peter. ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,(that Jesus was) but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matt 16:17-18)

Being singled out like this must have been a heady time for Peter. He likely had tried to imagine how his relationship with Jesus and the Father would play out as the ‘head’ of Jesus’ followers… It was his version of winning a lottery to run in the UTMB. But the hard part was yet to come.


Immediately thereafter, the opening words of the gospel for September 3rd continue but turn sombre.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Jesus’ prediction of his death was a startling turn of his narrative. His trajectory had looked like one triumph after another…He had been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people. His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. (Matt 4:23-26)

These new words about suffering and death were a candid look at the ‘race course’ he had chosen to run with all its obstacles, and to which he would invite his followers.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Flexing his new role as ‘blessed’ Peter tried to correct Jesus. Nothing in Peter’s experience led him to imagine that Jesus would be killed. He seemed too popular for the authorities to risk an uprising by even arresting him. Moreover, Peter and the other disciples cared deeply for Jesus. Their spontaneous reaction would have been to protect Jesus if they couldn’t help him avoid suffering and death.

Peter may have thought that Jesus was being melodramatic about his recent encounters with the scribes and Pharisees and wanted him to tone it down.

Yet Jesus saw his suffering, death and resurrection as part of the Father’s plan and his own mission, from which he would not be swayed. In the analogy to the UTMB race, Jesus was acknowledging that the route to glory would involve hardship and pain but he wanted it for the validation of his Father.


Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Jesus might have paraphrased the gospel from last week and today something like this; “if you truly believe that I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, be prepared to be tortured to death on my behalf. But know, too, that death is not the end. If you are faithful to me, you will also have resurrection and life of the fullest kind.”

Conventional wisdom, including our 21st century version of it, told the disciples and tells us to avoid life-threatening situations and if we encounter them, to defend ourselves. Jesus was telling them to embrace the threat that comes from following him. He was calling them to join him in his personal equivalent of a UTMB, to glorify the Father, to test themselves to the limit and to become the best version of themselves.

Jesus’ disciples had seen him raise a young girl from the dead (Matt 9:23-25) and there may have been other similar miracles… when John the Baptist’s disciples had come to him asking if he was the Messiah Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Matt 11:4-6). But Jesus was the source of life. His disciples may have wondered, if he died how could he rise again!

Jesus challenged his followers to follow him to death, even embrace it for his name’s sake, not because it was the end, but a way of passage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to it as the Cost of Discipleship.

Returning to the UTMB metaphor, Jesus invites us to participate in this ‘race’, with its promise of glory, but fully acknowledging that there will be difficulties on the way. If so many are prepared to sacrifice so much in preparation for the sake of the UTMB competition, how much more should we be willing to work and discipline ourselves to achieve the ultimate glory!


  • Can you imagine embracing the cross like the UTMB runners embrace the difficulties of the race? What is the most difficult physical and psychological challenge you have willingly sought? How did you prepare? What satisfaction did you find in the result?
  • Put yourself in the place of the disciples who had become used to seeing adoring crowds following Jesus, then heard him say that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. Were they inclined to reject what he said? If they accepted his words as accurate, did it make them reconsider their decision to follow Jesus? What did they feel?
  • Do you think Jesus’ disciples heard, and on the third day be raised? Were they so shocked by his prediction of his death that they were deaf to these words? Did they hear them but were lost in incomprehension about how it would be possible?