The Spirituality of Running: A Meditation for the Olympiad

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… who endured…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Even the youthful may faint and grow weary, 
even the fittest may stumble and fall,
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and never faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

The perpetual contest between weariness and perseverance is familiar to every athlete, and every saint. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get discouraged. You may faint and fall. But keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. On both good days and bad, you’ve got to put in the work, “lay aside every weight,” surrender to a power beyond your solitary will, and stay in the flow.

Over the coming weeks, we will see Olympic athletes do extraordinary things with their bodies, minds and hearts. Some of us will be inspired by their example to get in shape and pursue a goal, to test the limits of our own embodied existence. Others will remain passive spectators, admiring the exceptional gifts of the Olympians with no illusions of doing likewise.

Is it not the same with the saints? Their exceptional feats of faith, hope and love seem so far beyond us that we dismiss our own capacities for discipleship and transformation. But the saints want to inspire, not intimidate us. They are a cloud of witnesses cheering us on to become our truest selves. When poet William Stafford says, “Ask me if what I have done is my life,”[i] we hope the answer will be yes.

In the Divine Comedy, Virgil invites Dante to make the immense and arduous journey into God. The younger poet demurs. “I am not Aeneas,” he says. “I am not Paul.” But he sets out anyway, and in the end discovers he needs to be no one but himself. “Per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio,” Virgil says when they part. I crown and mitre you lord over yourself.[ii]

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a great pole vaulter. I loved the sudden ascent from the runway, feet swinging into the sky, the joyful clearance over the bar, the happy fall back to earth. I aspired to emulate world record holder Bob Gutowski, and for two years in college competed under his coach, Payton Jordan. But I lacked the necessary speed and strength to master the event, and gave it up before my 20th birthday.

I had thought I was a pole vaulter, but would come to discover that I was actually a distance runner. I had run cross-country and the mile in high school, thinking it would be good conditioning for my “real” event. But it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally embraced running as my athletic vocation.

I love the details of training, measuring daily progress as I increase the load and intensity of my runs. I love the mental challenge of racing, the ceaseless negotiation between desire and pain. I love the sense of aliveness that can follow the most exhausting workouts. But most of all I love the poetry of bodily motion, the primal elation of loping unhindered through space, dancing with earth and sky.

Sometimes you get into “the zone” and feel you could run forever. But that feeling is the fruit of weeks and months of training. As the Bible says,

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. Sure, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet. (Heb. 12:7, 11-12)

St. Paul, clearly a track and field fan, knew the amount of work required to get into shape and win the race. “Every athlete concentrates completely on training,” he wrote. “I punish my body and bring it under control.” (I Cor. 9:25, 27). In other words, no pain, no gain.

That doesn’t mean not to back off and be gentle when your body needs to rest and recover. My first two marathon attempts ended with training injuries from increasing my mileage too quickly, before my body was ready. Don’t forget to keep your Sabbath days!

With a more gradual buildup (and better shoes) I stayed healthy for my next two attempts. Here are a couple of excerpts from my Los Angeles training log in 1985, when I was doing 50-60 mile weeks:

9 miles fartlek [alternating fast/slow in a continuous run] in Griffith Park. Tired, no strength, but hung in there with endurance. Instead of power on speed bursts, went for quick rhythm. On hard reps up “Merry-Go-Round hill,” faced oxygen debt pain and tried to “love” it, absorb it as my own. Is it better to go hard only when fresh and sharp, or to push through the flat periods without a full recovery? (3/22/85)

That was a tough day.

 Intense speed work on the track. Fast times. Finally have reached new strength and speed level. Recovery jogs were at higher speed. I kept wanting more work! (4/02/85)

 That was an exhilarating day.

On the tough days, the questions multiply. Why am I putting myself through this? Am I delusional about my potential for improvement? Can my body take it? What’s the point?

When the questions pounce, you need the will to embrace and accept the pain. Hello, brother pain, how nice to see you again. Shall we take a run together? You also need a capacity for self-denial. Lay aside every weight. Great runners learn to let go, to trust that the pain is bearable, to hold nothing back, to surrender to that elusive, transcendent thing that takes over when we reach our limit.

Roger Bannister, who collapsed after he broke the 4-minute mile barrier in 1954, said that “the man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

Another great miler, 1960 Olympic 1500 meter champion Herb Elliott, received the same lesson from his coach, Percy Cerutty, who thought that running uphill on sand dunes until you couldn’t take another step was an ideal form of training. Cerutty told Elliott, who never lost a race, that “great runners must learn to die.”

Seen in this way, athletics is not just a metaphor for spirituality, but a plunge into the deepest sources of the self. “Learning to die” is the operation of a mysticism where subjectivity is transcended and absorbed into a greater whole. This kind of ecstasy has always been hard to describe since, as Maurice Blanchot suggests, “its decisive trait is that the one who experiences is no longer there when he experiences it.”[iii] The athletes who “disappear” into the Zone or the Flow for a few fleeting moments may struggle to put language to it, but they know something extraordinary has happened that was not of their own making.

What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induce inner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.

“Each bodily act, when purposefully carried out under the control of the Spirit, is prayer. Such bodily acts include eating, sleeping, working, recreating, and posture.”[iv]

Running is a purposive prayer practice for me. I was never an elite runner (nor will I ever be a saint!). But the body I run with is my body, inscribed with the history of my own heart, and “when I run, I can feel God’s pleasure.”[v]

While training for the Boston Marathon at age forty, I took a run down the grassy median of San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, a popular running spot. I saw Johnny Gray, American record holder for 800 meters and four-time-Olympian, stepping onto the path just ahead of me, and for the next two miles I tried to keep pace with him, just to see what it felt like. He appeared to be jogging, with an effortless, graceful stride. I, on the other hand, was working hard to keep up. But for that little while, following in Gray’s footsteps, I felt my own best runner wanting to emerge.

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

An old Anglican prayer asks God to “give us grace…to follow daily in the blessed steps of [Jesus’] most holy life.” What more can we ask of our stories, but to follow daily the blessed steps as best we can, bringing the flawed and glorious dispositions of our embodied selves into the living of our days?

Rainer Maria Rilke puts this perfectly in his poem, “I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.”[vi] It could be the runner’s prayer.

I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998), 56

[ii] Inferno ii, 32; Purgatorio xxvii, 142

[iii] q. in Kevin Hart, “The Experience of Nonexperience,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. Michael Kessler & Christian Sheppard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 197

[iv] Herbert Slade, Exploration into Contemplative Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1975), 21. Slade’s groundbreaking book had a great influence on both my praying and my running.

[v] 1924 Olympic 400 meter champion Eric Liddell narrates this line during his race in the film Chariots of Fire (1981)

[vi] trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2011/01/14/rainer-maria-rilke-i-believe-in-all-that-has-never-yet-been-spoken/

54 thoughts on “The Spirituality of Running: A Meditation for the Olympiad

  1. Beautiful reflection, Jim. Love the photo of you running. I remember my track coach in high school saying, “You’ve got to run through the pain.” I was never a great runner but I learned some important life lessons from him.

  2. This is wonderful. And that picture from 1961 is beautiful. You still hold your left hand just that way as you run along Rockaway.

    • I guess it’s what my body wants to do, although when I trained for my marathons under Lazslo Tabori (3rd man to break the 4-min. mile), he told me to confine my arm swing into an economical triangle.

  3. Very uplifting, inspiring. As I read, I kept thinking of the askesis/ascesis of the Desert Fathers who very much used similar language to yours to describe the spiritual struggle against logismoi.

    I thank you for sharing.

    Many blessings,
    b

    • Thank you for this. As William Harmless, S.J., points out in his book, “Desert Christians,” ascesis was a sports term before a monastic one, and could be translated as “exercise regimen.” The Desert monks themselves described their embodied spiritual struggles with athletic metaphors.

  4. Pingback: The Spirituality of Running: A Meditation for the Olympiad | 1oldtimepoet's Blog

  5. thank you for writing this, it was really inspiring and excellently written! i too am a runner and i’ve always considered it to be a really spiritual act.

  6. Pingback: La espiritualidad de reproducción: Una meditación para la Olimpiada – apserranoblog

  7. Love this! I’m training for my first 50K right now, which can be a bit overwhelming, but your perspective is beautiful. As an artist, runner, and Christian, so much of what you’ve said here applies in so many ways! Thanks for a great read!

    • Thanks so much. All the best on your 50K. When Anne Lamott’s 10-year-old brother was feeling overwhelmed by having to write a report on birds which he had put off until the last minute, their dad told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” My best advice to you would be to stay in the moment, accept the step-by-step act of running as who you are for now, and not think about the future state of rest beyond the finish line. You might enjoy this post from my 500-mile walk of the Camino de Santiago: https://jimfriedrich.com/2014/04/25/by-the-numbers/

      • Wow! Thanks for sharing… I can’t imagine 500 miles… so cool that you were able to share a portion via video! Your perspectives remind me of a friend of mine, who I’ve always just known as Dr. Horton… but his name is David Horton; great guy, huge inspiration!

  8. Running is the ultimate release of tension and at the same time contains a spiritual mysticism. I often run in the forest near my university and find peace in nature

    • Running is such a great way to commune with “place.” And the heightened awareness of my own body and breath while running always awakens me to my own embeddedness in the natural world.

    • The setbacks are sometimes the most important parts of the journey, which is more about process than goal anyway. I just read this in Paul Crowther’s book on art and spirituality, “How Pictures Complete Us”: “We may find fulfillment in the culminating phases of a project or our life-goals, but these do not crystallize in a single, all-encompassing mega-present of achievement that endures through the passage of time. We may strive for its absolute possession, but to no avail—all we have are memories of it.” At the same time, it is undeniably a joy to finally cross that finish line, and I wish you the best in the steps that will take you there.

    • Thank you. The photo was taken on a fire road in the hills above my school, a favorite workout spot. I was always fond of the late afternoon light coming through the eucalyptus trees.

  9. I really liked this post! From someone who has hated any kind of physical activity until recently when I have realized that God created this body and loves this body. Therefore I ought to take good care of it as a mean of gratitude and worship. So I have been thinking about going back to take swimming lessons and was looking at different aquatic centers in my area. I pray I get to the place one day where I can press through the pain. Both physically and spiritually.

    • I love the idea of self-care as a form of gratitude and worship. Cherishing the gift honors the Giver. Blessings on your exercise. After the initial phase of getting your body used to a new level of work, there is real delight, even an effortless “state of grace,” to be found when you discover that extra gear.

  10. Reblogged this on Griote and commented:
    “But the saints want to inspire, not intimidate us.”

    “When the questions pounce, you need the will to embrace and accept the pain.”

    “The athletes who “disappear” into the Zone or the Flow for a few fleeting moments may struggle to put language to it, but they know something extraordinary has happened that was not of their own making.”

  11. Those who protested in Brazil and who were ignored as Rio citizens may well disagree with this obsessive dedication that drives men and women in spite of consequences. Many Christians may well view your sermon with disdain believing caring for others is more important than priming yourself to perfection.
    Where has this drive to perfection led us ; to drugs and desperation to be the best at all costs. Look at football and the vast scandal involved.
    I know the Bible can be used to prove almost any point of view but we need to test it with our own conscience not let the book form our conscience.

    • Thank you for your prophetic passion. There is certainly much to critique in commercialized sports, and weighing the costs vs. benefits of the Olympics poses an ongoing challenge. But are you making a more fundamental objection to the very notion of physical aspiration, with an implicit dualism in which our bodies are not gifts but objects of suspicion or even disdain? We are embodied selves, and it is no sin to find pleasure in the exploration of our physical gifts, or as poet Mary Oliver says, “to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.” Only a few have a vocation for the “obsessive dedication” of an Olympic athlete, but we all have something of the hero’s quest in us, the desire to test our limits and feel the joy of pushing beyond our default existence. And, as many discover, the body’s dance is a form of prayer, as much engaged with the balance of works and grace, effort and receptivity, ego and surrender, as our more inward practices. Now is it inherently selfish to attend to our personal potential, as if one must choose between caring for self and caring for others? Cannot our best selves be a gift which is shared with others? For an extended reflection on an unusual instance of the hero’s quest, see my post, “Solitude (Part 2)”: https://jimfriedrich.com/2015/02/18/solitude-part-2/

      • Am I not right in saying that The Buddha rejected the life of lone isolationism to preach the eight fold path. Men and women who lock themselves away from the world have deserted mankind just as much as those who pursue their own interests to the exclusion of all else.
        Enlightenment ( if there is such a thing) lies in service to others and we have many fine examples today. Such men and women lift my spirits even just reading about them. Look what science has achieved and yet it is a failure because it is not used for the good of all.
        Five hundred million Indians defecate outside every day.

      • Perhaps it is helpful to think of complementarities rather than polarities. As Rebecca Solnit writes about her arrest at a Good Friday protest at a Nevada nuclear test site, “Even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.” By all means repair the world, but part of that work is to water the garden of your own story, for it has been given into your trust for tending, and its beauty is a necessary note in the cosmic symphony. Being attentive to our own gifts is fully compatible with a life for others.

      • Beautifully and poetically put Jim , but watering our own garden is hardly a Christian pursuit although we must all admit to doing just that at times. The cosmic symphony sounds splendid and rings of Buddhist karma but for many it is a cacophony of raucous sound.
        The battle ground is between self and others that is the very meaning of moral rectitude. Our evolution makes use survivors regardless of the consequences but the moral law within raises us above animal instinct.
        Emmanuel Kant was surprised by two mysteries : the moral law within us and the starry skies above us.

  12. Pingback: Doodle 079 | The Olympics | One Doodle a Day Blog

  13. I am one who “doesn’t do physical”. However this article applies so much to life in general; life is hard and so often it would be easy to roll over. To take life on life’s terms, face it head on and trudge through is so much more rewarding. I found your article extremely encouraging. Thank you.
    Alice

  14. I often get what I can only describe as a religious experience when I push through the pain barrier on a long run. It’s like a feeling of being outside of myself and conscience of a connection with the greater world.

  15. I have a friend who runs ultra marathons – running is the source of purpose for my friend in all aspects of life. As he has explained, what draws him to running is that understanding he achieves of himself, in knowing that he is capable of accomplishing what both his body and mind tell him he can’t. Running for him is a personal journey, in the same way reading and writing are for me. When I write, I imagine I’m doing it for the same reasons as my friend – it’s the ultimate source of motivation.

  16. So often I think people attempt to compartmentalize life. There’s our physical lives, our spiritual lives, our mental health and so forth, and we treat them as if they’re independent. I used to be a runner, and loved to run, but over the last decade or so have really become a gym rat. I enjoy lifting and cross-training. Simply being fit has become my sport. I appreciate how you connected your running and your faith. For me, exercise is every bit as much spiritual as it is physical. I have so seldom heard people share that component of physical exertion! Thank you! Very nice!

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