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/

Late summer days and the shadows of impermanence

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

It was supposed to be the Mariners’ year in major league baseball. With a few weeks still left in the regular season, Seattle’s star pitcher has 17 wins, and their best batter has hit 40 home runs. These are great numbers. But the team itself has been out of the pennant race since July. For a long time, the Mariners just couldn’t score when they needed to, lost a lot of close games, and are currently 7 games out of first place, and 6 games below .500. With only 20 games left, their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil.

So has their season lost all its meaning? Was it all for nothing? If a season is worthwhile only if you win the championship, then only one team can ever stave off meaninglessness. But as basketball legend Bill Russell has noted, in sports “the basic unit of time is the moment. Sports fans and players appreciate each instant.”[i] We enjoy the evening highlights on ESPN even if we don’t follow a particular team, even if our own team is having a bad year, because we are witnessing the timeless essence of the sport: a great pitch, the crack of the bat, a stolen base, a diving catch.

Sportswriter Meg Rowley, in an artful post called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz,” reminds us that every game, every team, has moments of pure skill and beauty with a value unto themselves, regardless of their relevance to the overall standings. We watch the games even if they don’t “matter” in the long run, because we love those moments.

I once saw Sandy Koufax strike out 18 Giants. I remember cheering and laughing with my dad from a bleacher seat high above right field. I remember Wally Moon blasting a 3-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But I didn’t remember, until I looked it up, was the year it happened, or the fact that this dramatic win helped the Dodgers go on to win the World Series. Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but the special moments endure.

Citing the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz (40 home runs) and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .351 and will probably win the batting title for a team that is 19 games out of first place, Rowley says that “every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure.” Every team but one will fail in the end. And even the winner is unlikely to repeat next season. “It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful … for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay.”[ii]

As I savor the luscious local weather of late summer in Puget Sound, I am also conscious of its imminent departure. No matter how many perfect moments have adorned these summer months, no one gets a winning season in the game with time. The day will come when night falls early, the birds have gone, and it’s too cold to sit outside in the garden with a book.

Emily Dickinson, who loved the “sacrament of summer days,” was haunted by the shadow of impermanence that falls across our sunlit lawns. The times when we forget that shadow, like the brief return of balmy weather in Indian summer, are but a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.”[iii] Yet Dickinson’s poetry, in its act of acute noticing, in its cherishing of the beauty which is all the more precious for its brevity, keeps the futility at bay. She could not solve the puzzle of where it was all headed, this ephemeral life. She wasn’t sure whether the future would turn out to be consummation or cessation (to borrow John Dewey’s evocative duality). Despite her inheritance of Christian vocabulary, she was steeped in nineteenth century doubt. But she always stepped to the plate and took her swings, and her readers still share the pleasure of her every at-bat.

I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her moving memoir of the generation who came of age on the eve of the First World War. Her descriptions of “carefree summers” before the war are especially poignant because both writer and reader know what is about to happen. When, in 1915, she received news about the death of one of her ‘summer friends’ – the kind of people “with whom one dances and plays games and perhaps flirts a little,” she wrote to her fiancé serving on the front that “it gives one the shock of incongruity to imagine the Angel of Death brooding over one’s light and pleasant acquaintances, and to think of them with all their lightness and pleasantries shed away.”[iv]

The dream of summer as a timeless sabbath from mortality soon vanished in the trenches, and with it many of Brittain’s generation, including her brother and her lover. But did the shortness of those young and precious lives invalidate whatever love and meaning and joy they did experience, however briefly?

Like Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler confronted the shadow of impermanence in all of his work. He said specifically of his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) that he was asking the big questions: “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast terrifying joke?”[v] With the vast orchestral intensity for which he was famous, Mahler takes the listener through a sonic storm of anguish and despair, hope and fear, apocalypse and catharsis, until the extraordinary moment when the chorus refutes the turmoil with the astonishing serenity, verging on silence, of its glorious invitation: Rise again.

I first heard the Resurrection Symphony from the third row of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta conducted, and Jessye Norman led the singers in the exultant affirmation of the finale, as voices, strings, brass and percussion carried us in a gigantic wave of sound across the abyss of loss into the transcendent:

Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have overcome
will carry you to God.

In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, when a fictional composer describes the final passage of his valedictory work, he captures something of what I experienced that night at the end of Mahler’s Resurrection:

It would be the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair … Hear the close, listen to it with me! One group of instruments after the other drops out, and what remains, with which the work dies away, is the high g of a cello, the last word, and the last suspended sound, in a pianissima fermata, slowly fading. Then there is nothing more. Silence and night. But the note that continues to hang and pulsate in the silence, the note that is no more, for which only the soul listens, and which was once the expression of sorrow, is no longer that but changes its meaning, and endures like a light in the darkness.[vi]

In the emotionally charged silence which followed the Philharmonic’s inspired performance, no one dared clap or even whisper. Mehta kept his arms high and extended, seemingly frozen in his final gesture, for a very long thirty seconds, forbidding us to drown out “the note that is no more” with the harshness of applause. Norman’s eyes welled up. Some of the orchestra wiped away tears. It was the closest I’ve come to eternity.

At last, very slowly, Mehta lowered his arms. When they finally reached his side, his shoulders relaxed, and we were all released back into time. We rose to our feet and thundered our joy. Yes, that sublime moment had kept futility at bay. More than that, it had carried us to God.

[i] Bill Russell, Second Wind, quoted in Lapham’s Quarterly: Time, Vol. vii, No. 4, Fall 2014, p. 118

[ii] Posted at http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/good-players-bad-teams-nelson-cruz-seattle-mariners-micuel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-090915

[iii] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #130, p. 61

[iv] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 158

[v] q. in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141

[vi] ibid., 178