Marathon Running and the Spiritual Life

September 19, 2017

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Recently, I ran my first half-marathon in Akron, Ohio and I will say that it was a transforming experience. Even though I thought that I was undertrained and ill-prepared, I was able to run a great race. Throughout the course of 13.1 miles, I was able to push my body to its limits, maintain a comfortable pace, and finish the race in under two hours – a considerable personal triumph.

Either on the trail or on the road, running has been one of the most beneficial and enjoyable hobbies I have had throughout my life. In high school I ran cross-country and track, and, thankfully, running is a discipline that has stuck with me. Running, whether in training for a race or not, is a love/hate sport because it requires a good amount of discipline and will power. The hard work and dedication of running, however, reap the rewards of physical fitness, personal accomplishment and self-mastery.

To preface my further comments, I will provide a brief philosophical backdrop. As Catholics, we believe the human person has a hylomorphic nature. Hylomorphism, a philosophical term used by Aristotle, means the body and soul of the human being are intimately bound together. While the human being is alive, the body and soul are inseparable. The hylomorphic view is contrasted to the dualistic view where the body and soul are seen as separate and even opposing entities. For example, this view would see the soul as a spiritual entity able to exist or, if you will, “float” outside the body.

Running shows, however, that the body is a united rather than a divided reality. When the body is healthy, the soul is healthy and vice-versa. The more people push their bodies to be the best they can be, the more they necessarily push their souls to be the best they can be. As I have been running over the past several months to prepare for the race, I have had many insights into the connection between running and the spiritual life. I hope to share two of them with you now.

One insight came to me within the first few miles of the half-marathon. I noticed that as we ran down the main streets of Akron there were loads of people who came to cheer us on. Many of those on the sidelines may have personally known a runner in the race and came to cheer them on as they ran by. However, some others may not have known anyone and were just there to cheer on all the runners.

Either way, these spectators came to cheer on athletes who were doing something inherently good and virtuous. The screams of exuberant fans helped to elevate the whole human person, body and soul. Despite the mental difficulty and physical pain, the marathon runners pushed their bodies to keep a consistent pace and hopefully to beat their PR’s – personal records. The runners pushed themselves, body and soul, to be the best they could be. It goes without saying that no one runs – or should run – a race purposefully giving less than their best.

The question that came to me in the first few miles was: If we see the good in cheering on marathon runners why cant we just as easily cheer on each other in the spiritual life to be more virtuous and holy people? We have no problem cheering each other on to be good, virtuous athletes, but, for some reason, when it comes to spirituality we tend to see personal spiritual goals as so individual and private that they become borderline taboo.

The reality is that marathon runners, with their own individual goals and PR times to hit, all run the race together. The marathon is an individual, yet communal reality. The race is even more communal when you add in the cheering spectators. This communal aspect is also present in the spiritual life. Certainly, we all have our own individual spiritualities, but they only make sense within the communal spiritual life of the Church – all of us running the race together. The spiritual life is not our own, but something we share in common with others. Having a deep and fulfilled spiritual life, demands that we cheer each other on to be the most virtuous and holy people possible.

The second insight looks at good “running form” and the importance of core strength. Good runners are able to run with good form. Having good form means that the runner drives their arms forward instead of into the ground, propelling their body forward. Good form also means keeping the torso as upright as possible while lifting the knees waist height in order to get a full, efficient stride. The most important factor in keeping good form throughout a race – which will provide for the fastest times – is having good core strength. Generally, core strength is concentrated in the muscles at center of the body – the abs, lats, and chest. A runner’s core strength allows them to keep good form, especially as fatigue sets in when they are nearing the end of the race. At the moment of fatigue is the most tempting time for a runner to have poor form, which only slows their pace and makes the run harder.

Again, the logic of running brings light to an important spiritual principle. In Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, the fifth rule of spiritual discernment says that one should not change anything in times of spiritual desolation, but should act according to the decisions they made in spiritual consolation. In other words, in order to triumph through times of spiritual fatigue – times when we feel like God is very distant or we are struggling with sin – we need to maintain good spiritual form.

Good spiritual form is made up of spiritual practices such as praying the Mass, participating in the sacraments, saying the rosary, praying holy hours, reading Scripture, or even just dedicating some time each day to talk to Jesus. These practices are not just for their own sake, but help keep us holy, virtuous, and striding toward God. As we keep up with these spiritual disciplines, especially through times of spiritual desolation and fatigue, we will make it through difficult times much more easily as we have the finish line – Heaven – in sight.

Spiritual form is only possible by having good spiritual core strength. Our spiritual core is built by keeping up with those spiritual practices that provide for our spiritual growth. It is not always easy to keep up with our faith because there are so many other distractions in our world, but in the end they will help us more than anything this world offers. For example, we can maintain our core strength by going to Mass even when we would rather sleep in on Sunday morning, or by making time for a daily rosary even when we feel we are too busy, or by reading the coming Sunday’s Scripture readings even though we would like to spend more time on Facebook. Jesus doesn’t necessarily want us to move mountains with our spiritual strength. Jesus just wants our simple daily commitment to Him so that He can move the mountains for us.

Running is not just another form of exercise, but is a discipline that challenges the our whole human personhood, body and soul, to be the best we can be. Certainly, we can run as individuals, but running reaches fulfillment when we compete in a race with other runners, while fans cheer on the sidelines. Running shows us that life is not only about sharing the road with others, but is also about sharing the depths of the our interior lives with other human beings, while cheering them on to be the best they can be.

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