Is God into Running? The Christmas Post

Is God into Running? The Christmas Post

Quick note; I like to use this space to engage the running community. That means addressing a lot of the topics that directly effect the mental and physical side of the sport, but sometimes also delving into grayer areas of the runner psyche. In this instance I explore the third rail of religion. I want to be careful to clarify that, although we all have our own backgrounds and orientations, I believe in, and I think the running community stands for, a VERY big tent when it comes to faith. Regardless of what someone identifies as, anyone striving to find congruence with their actions and their beliefs is my coreligionist, all the more so if they do so while pounding the pavement from time to time. If for any reason this is uncomfortable to read, please know that it is also very, very uncomfortable to write, but I’m dedicated to fostering a space where runners connect and share and sometimes that means taking a swing at a curveball.

I said a short prayer at the start line of the Boston Marathon last year. It’s not normally part of my prerace routine. Running has always had a spiritual importance for me, but at races I’m usually way too preoccupied with the secular logistics to worry about much else. The bladder gets way more attention than the soul as the race countdown proceeds, but I had a free moment and something about the setting seemed right. Marathon Monday followed Easter Sunday in 2021. We had attended an amazing service across the street from the expo, a three hundred year old church packed with casually dressed runners taking a break from their prerace jitters to celebrate the majesty of everlasting life. It concluded with a blessing for the runners. It was lovely, and maybe got into my head because I was still moved a day later standing there in Hopkinton. It’s an emotional place. The history gets to you; the lives dedicated to the sport you love, the total strangers beside you with whom you share a silent bond, the organizers, the volunteers, and the spectators. You think about the bombing. You think about the pandemic and how blessed you are that this April, unlike the past two, is witness to running’s holiest of holies. My bladder still took precedence, but my soul was definitely making some background noise. So I said a short prayer, just a quick little something to remind the big guy upstairs that I was doing this thing, that I was grateful for it and could probably use a little help to get me from there to Boston.

               Apparently, I prayed wrong because my race started to fall apart just before reaching the Newton hills – never a good sign. Everybody has a spiritual crisis or two in Newton, but the later the better. If you’re already pleading with God before Heartbreak Hill, it’s going to be a long day. That was me. I had trudged along, up and down the other hills, but I had very little left in the tank and the most notorious obstacle in the running universe ahead of me. So I went back to the prayer well. I said, “God, if you give me the strength to get to the top of this hill, I promise to run the rest of the way on my own.” It seemed inspiring. Of course, minutes later I was at the top of the hill and breathlessly muttering something to the effect of, “Um, hi God, forget what I said before, I actually need like another forty five minutes of divine intervention.” Now, I believe in an all omniscient and omnipresent God. I believe in a God that is all-merciful, a God that loves us because, not in spite of our imperfections. I believe in a compassionate and generous God, but I also believe in a kind of smart-ass God that isn’t above dishing out generous portions of sarcastic told-you-so’s when we need them. I imagined God looking down upon me there and saying something to the effect of, “You chose to do this. You spent money and time to get here. I’ve got disease and suffering to contend with. I have wars and school shootings, climate change and endemic poverty, and you’re asking for help to run DOWN a hill.” Thus ended the divine back and forth for the rest of the race. I made it to the finish line. It was a grind, certainly nothing miraculous. Nobody watching would have suspected that I was powered by the holy spirit, or, for that matter, any other worthwhile source of energy.

               That night I laid in a hotel bed, restlessly contemplating the religious implications of the race I had just run – yes, most marathon runners are batshit crazy. I was ashamed to have asked for God’s help to run a race. I wasn’t worried that I had angered God. As I said, I suspected that I had probably earned, at worst, a loving eyeroll from up above, but it does put into question where running fits into our moral lives. Like many of us, I spend a lot of time, energy and money on running. There are some charities that benefit from that, and maybe it gives inspiration to others, but those things are frankly pretty marginal in the grand scheme of the world. If I put everything I put into running into saving the Spotted Owl then, well, the Spotted Owls would be much better off. There is an opportunity cost. And yet I’ve always had a vague, but confident sense that running makes me a better person. I’d like to think running pleases God, but why? That’s what I laid awake wondering.  

               Around this same time, we started reading the bible with the kids. It can be a tough read with young children, especially when one of them is a precocious vegetarian. Spoiler Alert: the livestock do not live happily ever after. But kids have a way of looking for answers to the questions adults have forgotten to keep asking. Adversity figures prominently throughout the Bible. It’s a living tapestry of challenges and dilemmas, a fitting roadmap for a world that can be tough at times.  All religions address sacrifice and struggle in a myriad of different ways and sometimes in historical contexts that are difficult to relate to today, but there is often an element of wandering, a physical journey that tests and teaches on a spiritual level. I don’t want to harbor too much on any one faith, but I call this one the Christmas post, so oh well. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Joseph and Mary were travelers. The birth of Christ is one of the few instances in scripture in which God comes across as an active micromanager. He deploys Angels to ready the world. Surely, he could have tampered with Roman tax collection methods to spare Mary a difficult journey late in her pregnancy, but he doesn’t. The journey is important. It is what took Moses from Egypt, Mohamad from Mecca to Medina and back, and Buddha, well, all over the place.

A marathon isn’t a pilgrimage. It can feel that way at times, but it would be melodramatic to compare a couple of hours of exercise, with people handing you snacks and beverages along the way, to forty years in the desert. But life is a pilgrimage. From our first step to our last we’re wanderers, just the way God created us. One run is not and should not be the summation of all that, but it is a testament to the very best of it. When we run we momentarily escape the modern constraints of time and space and wander in the purest sense of the word. We explore. We see and listen. We learn. We think. We feel. We embrace the divine gift of consciousness and when we gather for a big race it is the sweaty mass of tens of thousands, men and women, old and young, people from all faiths and ethnicities wandering as one that is my very favorite celebration of God’s creation. Merry Christmas and happy running.