Running life's spiritual journeys

Running and Racing: Christopher Goss
April 20, 2002

Despite the fact that they are often wedded together, sports and spirituality are not always a good match. When sport is tied to spirituality, it is usually through a bad football or baseball game metaphor or an awkward post-game note of thanks to God for helping one of two teams win.

A more effective use of sports to explore spirituality is through the stories of the perseverance, challenges, and triumphs of individuals. In these tales, though, the sport is frequently an interchangeable part of the story. In running, spirituality is truly reflected in the sport itself.

This uniqueness is due to the fundamental and personal nature of running. Everyone knows how to run. There are no contrived rules and no equipment is needed other than the tools provided to each of us at birth. The goal of each race is simple. Get to the finish line as fast as possible — without help from anyone else.

For these reasons, running can more successfully be used as a metaphor. Oprah Winfrey, of all people, has captured this most succinctly. "Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it."

This is very much the way it is with our spiritual journeys. It is possible to be very talented in shooting a basketball or hitting a baseball without putting much work into it. It is also possible to form opinions about the nature of being without giving much thought to it. When things get tough, though, just as there is no in-born talent of running endurance, there is no such thing as a natural gift of divine wisdom.

You can only run the 26 miles of the marathon with training and preparation. I have seen runners do a few 10-mile runs and head to the marathon starting line believing that the combination of this basic preparation and their talent would be enough to carry them to the finish line. They start out great, of course, but you know you won't have to worry about them in the end.

People run their life races in the same manner. They believe they were given an understanding of the world at birth. They remember a few lessons from their childhood Sunday School days and read a couple of books by self-help gurus, thinking that is enough preparation to make it through the marathon of life. These folks also start out fast, but as with the unprepared marathoner, they are searching the crowd for answers in the middle of the race. By the time they get to the finish line, the answers are clear — you have to prepare for the race and cannot rely on talent alone. By then, though, the race is over and there is no time to run it again. You only get out of it what you put in to it.

At some point in most people's lives, they have had to run some distance. For many of these people, these are painful memories. They wonder why anyone would do this for fun. The problem is that those individuals did not run far enough. What they don't understand is that the first runs of accomplished runners were also difficult. Even less understood is the fact that the first couple of miles of regular training runs are also painful even for well-trained runners.

So why do runners run?

There is, of course, a competitive element to running. Within 100 miles of nearly everywhere there is a road race each weekend. General exercise and weight loss is a motivating factor for some. For the runners who keep hitting the roads year after year, though, it is the runner's high that keeps them going.

The runner's high is a somewhat mysterious and debated condition. Some researchers have posited theories dealing with endorphins, adrenalin, and other bio-explanations. For me it is a simple mental condition that can only exist when your body is clicking on all cylinders. It is a state when your body is exerting significant physical effort, but is demanding little mental input to maintain that effort. When you reach that point, it feels like you can run forever.

The benefits of prayer and meditation to spiritual growth are tenets of all of the world's religions. The typical goal for meditation is to have as little physical exertion and input as possible. Perhaps I am just not disciplined enough to reach that state. For me, the unsuspected clarity of mind that exists during the runner's high is when I am best able to understand myself and my reason for being here.

We are all born wondering why we were put on this blue marble. Some try to fight this curiosity by finding noisy and complicated distractions to entertain themselves, suppressing their innate desire to know what it all means. The runner, though, embraces this curiosity and uses his sport as the means to carry out the search — a search that just may prove to be a bit shorter when you are running to get to the end.

Carpe viam.