Our Sunday Best

As veteran runners you’ve perhaps heard the suggestion that running is a religion. Even if you’re not buying it, the idea is out there: just consult the modern oracle that is the internet, where scores of clever memes make the point more entertainingly than I can. Or consider the message in a 2016 holiday-season Asics ad depicting runners in winter conditions: “In this religion, there are no holidays.”

So is running really a religion?

A simple semantics test casts doubt on the notion. We find Christian runners, Jewish runners, Muslim runners, Buddhist runners, etc. If running really were a religion, one could be, for example, a Christian or a runner but not both at once. Religions just don’t mix that way. That’s the short and neat negation, if you like. But being a long-distance runner, used to slogging through the gray and the mud, I’ll leave short and neat to the sprinters.

I can imagine that the idea of a running religion first occurred to some dithering Christian runner who, faced with the dilemma of a Sunday morning service or an important race, chose the latter, and resignedly exclaimed, “Well, I guess running is my religion.”

We can agree, I think, that running isn’t “that old time religion”; nevertheless, for me and for a number of secularists, agnostics, and atheists it may perform some of the work of religion in our lives. A Christian, Jewish or Muslim runner might prefer to view running as George Sheehan (a committed Catholic) did: “Running is not a religion, it is a place.” A place of silent worship. A place to offer thanks. A place to enjoy God’s gifts among what John Muir refered to as, “nature’s cathedrals.”

Like all religions, running has the potential to redeem (in this life, obviously). Popular running magazines abound in testimonials. Running has saved the lives of alcoholics, depressives, and drug and food addicts. It has provided meaning and structure to young lives on paths of self-destruction or gang involvement. Short of these stories of nearly miraculous intervention, is the more typical existential-crisis narrative, summed up in veteran trail runner Buzz Burell’s words: “…I had no idea what was true or what was false. But I knew when I moved and breathed and perspired, that was real. And so running became the first real thing in my life.”

For the person who has trafficked too much in the wide array of vices on offer in the modern world, running, like religion and self-improvement programs, offers the promise of rebirth and a platform for those purgations, mortifications and ablutions associated with repentance. The repentant forswears old beliefs and practices, and is born, as it were, into a new life, often to include even a new circle of friends and acquaintances, certainly to include new rituals and sabbaths. These conversions are often treated as watersheds and defining moments in one’s life history. Runners often talk of the time before they were runners with the same sense of estrangement and disassociation as the devout speak of the time before they were saved to new lives. Dean Karnazes’s story of conversion in UltraMarathon Man and John Bingham’s saved-a-wretch-like-me yarn in An Accidental Athlete contain many of the same dramatic elements as may be found in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. It is not just the flight from cigarettes and fried food–the usual gluttonies, in other words–that deliver world-weary souls to running’s doorstep. It is as often the flight from ennui, an urgency to fill a running-shaped hole (to borrow an expression from the devout), that calls that most wretched and lost of creatures, the middle-aged schlep in baggy bluejeans, to purchase his first pair of running shoes.

Religions, we know, offer prayer and meditation as means of obtaining states of mind in which one’s attention is diverted away from the clutter of bodily and mental concerns and trained upon a spiritual focal point (i.e., the love of a deity, oneness, the contemplation of perfection, etc.). Religious ecstasy and enlightenment are the sorts of names we sometimes give to such states of mind. Not surprisingly, we find a fertile analog in running. Mantras, visualization, and focused breathing are used to gain a purchase on “the zone.” The fabled runner’s high refers to a transcendent state beyond discomfort’s jurisdiction, where running becomes as effortless as drawing breath, a place where all previous sacrifice and doubt dissipate into bliss, quietism and perfect understanding. How is a runner describing the runner’s high different than a believer describing the act of receiving communion? At the very least the runner’s high can be likened to the enlightenment that is sometimes glimpsed by the spiritual seeker in Buddhist traditions. Practiced sincerely and mindfully, both running and religion can leave their practitioners with a sense of personal well-being and a feeling of interconnectedness with all that is good and wholesome.

While both religion and running may be practiced as solitary endeavors, both reach their fullest expression where they intersect with the social milieu. Even for the running hermit and the closet prayer, he or she must occasionally re-establish ties to the community as a periodic source of renewal and reorientation. Community is not so much a watering hole into which it is healthful to sometimes dip our ladle (for the nourishment that fresh perspectives and new knowledge bring), as it is an oxygen-rich rush of roiling water, into whose unremitting currents we may mix the various contrarian eddies that we are, to get us going with the flow again, so as not to finish in stagnation or to disappear completely down a sinkhole. Hydrodynamics is at bottom a study of energy; anyone acquainted with mass-participation running or religion will appreciate that these endeavors are no less bound than water to natural law. The runner who has never felt herself swept up in a race (like a droplet of H2O in a rushing torrent) has neglected a tenth and maybe more of her performance potential. One who stands aloof from group worship or communal meditation eschews the synergism that has for ages recommended the religious congregation. The hermit always risks loosing his way and developing idiosyncrasies in his vision and his practice. When lost in the mountainous wilds, one does well to find and subsequently keep to the river that follows the valley floor. The river leads back to civilization. Though his “rivers” were mostly desiccated creek beds, even Micah True knew the way to Urique.

Consider running’s religiosity as akin to that of the internet congregation known as the Church of Body Modification. This small collection of individuals recognize ritualized privation and discomfort as means of strengthening the connection between mind, body, and soul. Consider their Statement of Faith, “We promise to always grow as individuals through body modification and what it can teach us about who we are and what we can do.” Substitute the term running for body modification and we are left with a sentiment with which we can comfortably relate. Compare these words to those of Saint John of the Cross’s: “Let your soul therefore turn always…not to what is easy, but to what is hardest…not to rest, but to labor.”

The word religion calls to mind, for many, the various rituals and observances associated with the major world religions. This contains the crux, I believe, of the comparisons of running to religion. To the religiously committed, few if any worldly distractions warrant ducking any part of the set of rituals deemed essential for his/her chosen degree of involvement in the faith. To observe a runner “in training” is to behold an individual bent on the strictest adherence to a set of ritualized behaviors, worldly distractions be damned. The deeper his involvement in the sport, the more likely it is that he will doggedly resist temptations to make exceptions to an absolute adherence to the prescribed way. And who will have mandated the way? Usually a coach or an author. It is no stretch to say that these individuals play a role similar to that of priests in consulting the canonical works of running (and applying an individualized pedagogy), and fashioning them into inspirational sermons as well as courses of study and ritualized practice.

There may come a Sunday morning when you’ll face the dilemma of whether to show up at church or to race. Either way, you can view it as a chance to put on your Sunday best.

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