• Randy Karlberg

When you think of endurance athletes the category of “grandfather” does not rise to the top on a list of potential competitors.  And yet this is the lore of Gustaf Håkansson.  In 1951 Swedish organizers formed a new 1,000-mile endurance race for cyclists called Sverigeloppet.  They rejected most of the applicants desiring to have only the 50 best athletes participate.  Håkansson was rejected because of his age.  Surely a 66-year-old man could not endure the grueling course stretching from Haparanda in northern Sweden, up by the Finnish border, and finishing at Ystad in southern Sweden.  Not one to give up easily, Håkansson rode his bicycle, a heavy common road bike with a headlight above the front tire, 600 miles north to the start.  He came up with his own race bib and handwrote the number “0” on the front.  He was not allowed to start with the “real” riders, so he started at his own pace 20 seconds after the official start.  As you can imagine, cheers and chants of all sorts accompanied him as he embarked on his 1,000-mile adventure.  

As the race took shape Gustaf settled into a steady pace, one that he knew he could keep up for a thousand miles.  The other competitors assumed a much faster pace.  These racers observed the strict rules of the race and rested each night at checkpoints, only to resume once again the next morning.  Not so for Gustaf.  He rested the first night for a total of one hour, and then was back on his bike seat continuing down the course in the darkness.  Obviously, the other entrants and officials saw this as cheating.  But how could someone “cheat” if they were not officially a part of the race?  After the first 50 miles he was 10 miles back of the leaders.  But after 300 miles Gustaf found himself 20 miles in the lead!  

A local paper picked up this story and put a picture of Gustaf on the front page.  He was shown riding his bike with his long, gray beard covering nearly half of his hand written number zero.  In the article they gave him the nickname Stålfarfar, which translated means Super or Steel Grandpa.  The entire country was fixated on the Swedish version of the Tortoise and the Hare.   At the finish line in Haparanda five days after the race began the first rider was minutes away from crossing the finish line.  Crowds lined the streets, a band played loudly welcoming the first to cross the line.  As Stålfarfar rounded the bend a mere 800 yards from the finish, it is said he came to a grinding halt having suffered his first flat tire not even a half-mile from the finish.  He dismounted his bike and looked at the tire.  He considered the people lining the street with the band playing.  He calmly jumped back on his bike and rode that flat across the finish line.  He had completed the course in 5 days and 5 hours.  As it turns out he finished almost a full day ahead of the next closest competitor.  Gustaf was most excited that he had shown the much younger doctors who said he could not compete, what he was capable of.  It is said Gustaf made much more money in appearance fees than did the official winner who received a 1,000 Kroner prize. 

I was reminded of this story when I was teaching about Caleb from Joshua 14.   Caleb was one of the 12 spies who was sent to spy out the promised land in Numbers 13.  They spied out the land and found it to be just as it was described to them.  There was an abundance of food and open space for them to settle.  There was just one problem.  The descendants of Anak, or Anakim were in the land.  These were giant people who were known to be in the land.  Goliath was one of these descendants.  I am sure you recall that 10 of the spies gave a report saying the land was amazing, but the Anakim made it impossible to conquer.  Joshua and Caleb however, gave the charge that Israel could indeed conquer the land because Yahweh was on their side!  He had given this land to them.  With the Israelites listening to the ten spies rather than God, God disciplined them severely for disobeying His commands and for not having faith in Him.  Thus, He had them wander in the wilderness for 40 years until each of the adult men died off.  Everyone, that is, except Joshua and Caleb.  Joshua assumes the role of second in command under Moses.  And when Moses dies, Joshua is made the leader of the Israelites.  But we don’t read a lot about Caleb.  He is kind of in the background as they start conquering the promised land.  

That is until it comes time to assign the inheritance of the land.  In Joshua 14 we are told that Caleb, who is of the Tribe of Judah, makes a request for his inheritance.  We pick it up in Joshua 14:7-12 with Caleb speaking, “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart.  But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the Lord my God.   And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the Lord my God.’  And now behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as He said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness.  And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old.  I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming.  So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities.  It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”  This portion of land is also known as Hebron.  Hebron is the place that Abraham bought to bury his wife, Sarah.  Abraham is also buried there.  

The most amazing thing in this passage is the heart of Caleb.  He desires to obey Yahweh and conquer the land they were given by God even though he is eighty-five years old!  He shares how he is still strong and full of life even at this age.  And if you read closely, you will see that he asks for the hill country, which is the hardest land to conquer.  Not just difficult terrain, it still has the descendants of Anak there, or the Anakim.  As a matter of fact, later in Joshua 15:14 the names of the “three sons of Anak” are listed there by name.  These are the same names that are listed forty-five years earlier in Numbers 13:22. Not only had Caleb’s faith in Yahweh been strengthened, he wanted to take out the three giants that originally seemed insurmountable to the ten other spies!  I am amazed by Caleb’s faith in the Lord.  Caleb was fully seeing that Yahweh was the reason that he had success in battle.  I am also encouraged that he did not see advanced years as a reason against accomplishing what God had laid on his heart to accomplish.  He was strong in faith and vigor until the end of his life.  If you ask me, Caleb is the real Stålfarfar.