By Michael Rossmann
Fall in the Midwest for me is a delightful time of colorful leaves, pumpkin-flavored deliciousness, Notre Dame football, and for the past four years, my fall schedule has also included running in a marathon.
When I take a step back and look at the idea of running a marathon — training for hundreds of hours and paying a fair amount of money in order to go through a lot of pain and even risk one’s life — it is crazy, really. People have told me that we were not designed to do this and that I should have gotten a clue from the original marathon runner who dropped dead.
Looking at it from an insider’s perspective, however, it is one of the most exhilarating, valuable experiences I have had. Beyond just the health benefits or the millions of dollars that charities have been able to raise through marathons, I am particularly interested in the spiritual benefits of distance running.
Even as a high school student, I noticed how a disproportionate number of cross country runners also attended faith-related events. Many brother Jesuits and committed lay Catholic friends are also runners, and I have heard many runners — even some who are not particularly religious — talk about running as a type of “spiritual” experience.
Over the years, I have developed various theories in order to explain this apparent correlation between distance running and spiritual seeking. Running affords us countless hours of solitude and silence — apart from the meditative, steady pounding of feet — and especially when done in the beauty of creation, it is not surprising that people eventually think about some of the big questions in life.
Of course, running in a marathon is not for everyone; there are actually sane people out there! At the same time, some of the insights from running and their spiritual implications are applicable for many others.
Distance running, like the spiritual life, requires considerable discipline and a long period of training, especially if one is to make noticeable progress. Granted, my brother completed a marathon never having trained and after eating pork roast and pecan pie the night before, though he is the great exception. I am never disappointed afterwards for spending time in prayer or running, especially when it involves basking in those delightful post-run endorphins, but it is not always easy to convince myself to get out and hit the road or head into the chapel before the majority of humanity has awakened. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is often weak.
Over time, however, I cannot imagine not running or praying. More than something that I feel that I “should” do, I find myself praying in gratitude that I get to do this, that I am in touch with my body while running along Lake Michigan and gazing at the emerging sunrise or that I am in touch with the stirrings of my heart in prayer and am able to bring that to God who gazes on me with love.
Additionally, not all of us have run at high elevations since the time we were little like many of the Kenyans who have achieved unparalleled marathon success — just as all of us have not lived perfect spiritual or moral lives — and yet all of us can work to move forward from where we are. I just completed the Quad Cities Marathon at the end of September, and the winner could have run another half marathon by the time I finished. Still, I experienced the deep satisfaction of setting my PR — or “personal record” in runner-speak. Likewise, I am humbled by the greater spiritual depth of many women and men I meet, and yet God continues to call each of us personally to grow closer to Jesus, regardless of where we currently find ourselves.
Of course, one does not have to be an actual marathon runner to be a spiritual marathoner. What running highlights for me, however, is that insights from seemingly non-religious aspects of our lives can contribute to understanding what it means to be a person of faith.
(Michael Rossmann is a Jesuit scholastic at Loyola University Chicago and a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).