Heavenly Gaits: Running as a Religion

“Without constant renewal, what he had experienced at the monastery would vanish. Otherwise, for the rest of his life, he would awake in the morning with the same tendencies, the same desires, the same sins that he conquered only the day before. Only a return each day to the monastery would save him. Running, I told the reporter, is just such a monastery – a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” – George Sheehan, running author and guru

I try to keep this blog very focused. It is almost exclusively about running and rarely do I use it as a vessel to ruminate on life’s big questions, or to sort through personal issues. Unless those big questions arise during a footrace, I don’t let political leanings or any deep-held convictions enter this space in any direct, unequivocal way. I’ve often nudged certain viewpoints into posts with harmless disguises, but never with a provocative intent. If anything, I expose my worldview with more gusto in comments I leave on other blogs.

And yet, if all you know about me is what you’ve read here, you probably know a lot about what makes me tick. I like to run, I’m kind of fast, I love to use races as a stand-in for visiting friends and family and I often combine a big race with a chance to try the local cuisine. But what do I think of the social safety net? Do I have a stance on gun control? On federalism, foreign wars, the public school system or the Vatican? For the most part, I’ve stayed away from opening any floodgates because I know it can turn some people off. In many cases, big picture topics don’t really fit in a space largely reserved for describing the marathon experience. Plus, I want my running stories to speak for themselves. And yet I know this kind of thematic quarantine is unrealistic – sooner or later, you’ll get to really know someone. I’ve simply decided to avoid that here.

And then one day, toward the end of a long run, I followed an interesting thought. It led me through a thorny reverie and I came out the other side confused, frustrated, but intrigued. I took these lingering feelings and, over the last month, wrote and fastidiously re-wrote this post. We’re still talking about running, as I always will on this space, but with a new approach. To encourage a thoughtful discussion on the topic, we first have to journey back to my childhood.

Genesis

You see, I’m not exactly what you’d call a religious person. Not surprisingly, this is largely due to my upbringing. My father was always very critical of organized religion and my mother never had much of an opinion on the topic. Although her side of the family was equally ambivalent, his was a fascinating combination of conflicting views. My grandfather, who we called Lelo, was a Freemason who would sit with his arms crossed at mass and grumble, while my grandmother Lela was very pious and likely sat toward the front. As a child, whenever we would visit our native Costa Rica, I would spend most of my time at their house, as Lela was practically my best friend. I fondly recall playing piano in her living room while she would bring me strawberry milk in brightly colored, wide-lipped tin glasses.

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Thanks to her, I learned to read at a very young age, which made me very quick with a book in kindergarten. Every weekend, we would visit the cathedral in Alajuela and take a stroll through the park that served as its front yard. She would let me pick one tiliche (Costa Rican for “doohickey” or “plaything”) from one of the many merchants during these visits and I would spend the weekend playing with it. Every night we would pray together and I soon learned to recite Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Spanish. She was a very loving and kind woman, even as she slowly succumbed to breast cancer when I was just seven. I learned a lot from Lela, but despite her piety and the nightly blessings, I never bought into Catholicism. I was more interested in the cathedral’s cupola than the guy nailed to the cross beneath it.

Growing up, my family would go to church only for weddings and funerals. During these visits, I would be fascinated by the opulent and imposing architecture of cathedrals and churches, but I never achieved any spiritual resonance. I attended Sunday school very briefly, but I suspect that was just because my mom wanted me to spend less time in the basement playing video games. Around the same time, a friend invited me to an all-night lock-in at a Go-Kart and Video Game emporium in Atlanta, where you could drive all night and all the arcade games were free. I practically salivated at the invitation and could scarcely believe it. I was soon dismayed upon learning that we had to first listen to a series of sermons at his local church, sing popular songs with a religious spin (i.e., “Walk Like a Christian”) and discuss catechism in small groups before a single engine could be revved. But I put up with all of it for the chance to play Mortal Kombat and Daytona USA for hours without coughing up any hard-earned quarters.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I suspected that the whole thing was a deliberately orchestrated parable for the Christian experience.

As a teen, I had always described myself as “spiritual, non-religious,” as I had felt my fair share of sublime inspiration through the muses of art, laughter and loved ones. But even in college, where the vicissitudes of higher education, boundless freedom to explore and the incredible distance from home encourage many young people to soul search, I only went to mass once, and it was literally to “coincidentally” bump into a girl. Much to my delight, we ended up getting lunch together afterward. I didn’t believe that this fortuitous date was thanks to divine, cosmic influence but I was still far from hard-line atheism. My journal entries at the time, written during years fraught with anxiety about girls and finding a job, routinely invoke a higher power, usually in a supplicant, pleading tone. Whenever a friend would call himself an atheist, I would dismiss it as a juvenile act of teenage rebellion, similar to getting a nose piercing or a tattoo of your favorite band. Even to me, the word “atheist” had a certain sting to it. I didn’t subscribe to this religion or that one, but part of me bought into the idea of a supreme being. I blame this on movies, books, and joining a fraternity established in Virginia.

Call it cultural osmosis but the idea of God was too entrenched in the world around me to ignore.

Exodus

But then after graduation, out in the real world, I had a change of heart. Once out of the nurturing bubble of college, I began immersing myself in current events and didn’t like what I found. World affairs were being framed as a cosmic battle between religious forces; the Intelligent Design curriculum was weaseling its way into school classrooms; Islamic fundamentalists were stoking the fires of long-standing, internecine conflicts in the Middle East; the Vatican was being plagued with unspeakable scandals involving priests and minors; Scientology was reaching new heights of exposure and ignominy; and congressmen were citing Biblical scripture to justify legislation that would threaten women’s access to health services. On and on the list went. I voraciously read books on the topic, from confrontational atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to religious scholars Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan and Noah Feldman, ultimately coming to the conclusion that we have one life to live, governed by chaos, and little else. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, I decided that it was an error “to think of any afterlife or any reincarnation we are bound for as more extraordinary than finding ourselves here in the first place.”

Religion had never played a large role in my life, so I decided to take the next step and make it official by identifying as an atheist.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

It wasn’t a life-altering epiphany but more a concrete establishment of lingering thoughts. As a child, I became obsessed with Battle of Olympus, a side-scrolling adventure game for the original Nintendo where the player parleys with the gods and fights monsters. It led me to a book by Bernard Evslin on the Greek myths, which I loved so much I finished it in just a few hours. I suspected that, at some point in time, these stories might have been canonical and revered as the true origins of the universe. I didn’t know anything at the time about Allah, Yahweh, Baal, Vishnu or Odin but I was fully immersed in the trials of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. So I asked my dad, what would happen to average Christians if they met Zeus upon dying? He answered stoically, I don’t know, but that’s a possibility.

So at a young age, I felt that the idea of a supreme being, just by virtue of having such a diverse array of options, was unlikely but not impossible. But once out of college, I began abandoning the idea completely and embracing the staggering privilege of being alive, as a human, in this day and age. I shed all belief in spirits, souls, the afterlife, even ghosts. I wasn’t faced with a traumatic event or made painfully aware of the bleakness of the world, as many critics of atheism attest. I simply decided that none of it made any sense to me. The world was real, physical, and our lives were the sum of an infinite weave of choices and random events. While some might think this is a cold view, I found it profoundly liberating and empowering. I was in control of my life, my attitudes and actions.

At almost exactly the same time, I began running.

It started with just a few runs a week, as if I were getting to know the congregation. But once I fully baptized myself in the sport, I had created a regimented structure that would govern many parts of my life. Even today, running has a huge say in how I devise my weekly, yearly, and even lifetime schedule (I’ve often told people that my lifelong goal is to be able to run ten miles at the drop of a hat, regardless of age). So once again, I found myself asking questions: did my rise in running happen as a consequence of abandoning the last vestige of faith? Had I replaced one with the other? And if so, how is the running culture similar to a religion?

The Gospel of Running

In the fall of 2011, I was at the ING New York City Marathon expo with my friend Baxter. As we navigated the many booths of exotic races and unusual goods, I was surprised to hear almost every language imaginable. The field was extraordinarily foreign, made apparent by the myriad colorful flags draped over svelte bodies. It was Baxter’s first experience at a marathon expo, which he very accurately compared to a stroll through Diagon Alley, the fictional commercial street in Harry Potter lore. As much as I laughed at the comparison, it was the first real indication that I was part of a peculiar community with its own customs, gatherings and language. He must have felt like a foreigner walking through a bazaar or attending the ritualistic mass of a cult.

A few years later, I made a list of similarities. There was certainly no shortage of people likening marathon runners to members of a cult, so I decided to ask myself the obvious question: are there enough similarities to call running a religion? Ken Chitwood, PhD and religious scholar, says that “in many ways, running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetic disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices and proselytizing prophets and priests.”

In the list below, I’ve taken a similar approach to the sport and gone a little beyond Chitwood’s scope to determine just how closely I could connect the two spheres of life.

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Disciples. A few booths away, surrounded by acolytes, I found the famous ultramarathoner and fitness advocate Dean Karnazes, whose fierce advocacy for fitness rivals his impressive feats of ultra-athleticism. He, along with expo staples Scott Jurek and Ryan Hall, are three of the sport’s many disciples, spreading the Gospel of Running from race to race (with Hall doing double duty by spreading the original Gospel in the process). There are many ultrarunners who point to super-athletes like Karnazes, Jurek and Pam Reed as having “converted” them to the sport.

Gods. But in addition to spreading the word, these figures and many others also represent the god-like core of running’s idols. We buy their books, eat their recipes, follow their programs, and cheer for them at competitions. Since we constantly squabble over who is supreme – some say it’s Gebrselassie, others vouch for Zátopek – perhaps it’s safe to say running is polytheistic. It also hurts tremendously when doping allegations surface and we learn that their superhuman status might have been unfairly achieved.

madison-outlineClothing. Much like Mormons have sacred temple garments and weekly churchgoers don their Sunday best, runners also drape themselves in curious garb when practicing. We eschew cotton in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics, we prefer our shorts to live up to their name, our forearms and calves are hugged by tight, brightly colored sleeves, and we equip ourselves with a variety of devices from heart rate monitors to GPS watches, fuel belts, and performance earbuds. Some trail runners shed almost all clothing save for shoes and shorts, the most notable of which is Tony Krupicka, who bears a slight resemblance to Christianity’s Jesus.

Rituals. Among the countless rituals runners perform (stretching, eating specific pre-run foods, post-run burgers), one towers above the rest. We spend our weekends, in the words of top American marathoner Shalane Flanagan, at the Church of Sunday Long Run. This grueling weekly task is an indispensable arrow in the runner’s quiver and is rarely skipped. We adhere to it with the strictest discipline, as if forgoing it would invoke the ire of our lactic threshold. It also forms the inner sanctum of our entire weekend plan, likely determining if we go out the night before and whether we’ll have enough energy for the rest of the day. Many people join running groups and meet the same friendly faces every Sunday, congregating in large, happy groups in parks and neighborhoods worldwide.

Medals and Beer, earned at the finish line

Medals and Beer, sacraments earned at the finish line

Sacrament. Every weekend, thousands of runners around the world receive blessing in the form of a finisher’s medal. In an act of transubstantiation, the trinket of metal, plastic, glass, clay or wood becomes more than just the sum of its materials the moment it is given to us. In those long seconds between heaves, the sweat-soaked award becomes an inseparable part of us as it swings below our chins and delicately bumps our frantic hearts. We wear it for the rest of the day like a rosary and some of us erect a monument in our homes so that all may see our dedication.

Prayer. The Islamic practice of salat requires that Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Christians routinely say grace before meals or at their bedside as a way to commune with god and keep in his good graces. If we frame the sport as a religion, then running itself is the act of praying. Anyone going through taper madness will testify that not running feels tantamount to apostasy, so many of us try to log miles as often as possible to stay close to the sport we love. Runners in the throes of their most intense weeks might start in the morning, rack up some miles during their lunch break, and end the day with an evening shake-off run. God is usually described as perfect, and by praying we get closer to him. With every run, we strive to achieve prime fitness, that elusive, “perfect” version of ourselves that will escort us to a new PR.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Diet. The Jewish laws of Kashrut govern what its adherents should not eat. Many Hindus do not eat beef out of respect for cows. Catholics are encouraged to avoid meat on Fridays and fast during the high holidays of Holy Week. Many runners, meanwhile, eat or snack ritualistically a set number of times per day and routinely lambast certain foods that everyone should avoid, such as anything deep fried or fat-free. A small sub-culture of runners also preaches the Gospel of veganism, some even finishing 100-mile races on a strict, fruitarian diet. In fact, it isn’t entirely off base to say that runners are more abstemious than serious followers of religious dogma.

Pilgrimage. Every year, many Costa Ricans walk to the Basílica de los Ángeles in Cartago to honor and give thanks to a black statue of the Virgin Mary in what is known as la romería (the pilgrimage). This happens all over the world, from Spain to Mexico and Mecca. Far beyond the obvious parallel of runners crossing long distances on foot, many choose to earn their place in the sport’s most prominent and prestigious pilgrimage: that of qualifying for and ultimately racing the Boston Marathon. Like a pilgrim kissing a sacred statue, many runners reach the blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street with equal fervor, earning a runner’s high than no other race can impart.

Many argue that trail running allows a closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Many argue that trail running allows a much closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Movements. Like most major faiths, running as an activity, sport and hobby exists in many different forms. Beyond the separation of road and track, there are trail runners who seldom touch asphalt, road runners that keep their fleet feet on flat pavement, weekend warriors who participate in non-chip timed fun runs, Hashers, Mud Runners, Obstacle Racers and Tough Mudders. All of these running incarnations come with their own creeds, temples and adherents, each no less effusive about the sport than the rest. Though no group openly disparages the others, it is not uncommon to hear trailheads bemoan the harshness of asphalt, or roadrunners vent their frustrations at seeing their times plunge in dense woods.

Up until now, I’ve stuck largely to comparisons that outline the daily habits or customs of runners and how they stack up as a religion. It has been what I consider a playful list, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Buzzfeed or Mashable. However, there are key characteristics that elevate the conversation and they deal with the personal and controversial elements that unearth the convictions beneath each topic.

The Flock

2012-0304 little-rock-marathonRunners are often vilified or at least chastised because they tend to speak at length about their sport. So it makes sense that when two runners bump into each other, they gab endlessly about their shoes, the most recent race they ran and favorite drills until everyone around them has moved to another table. As a community, we are a rich, international tapestry of athletes from all walks of life with millions of telling origin stories. We find common ground and become instant friends just by name dropping a unique race and even welcome strangers into our homes exclusively because they know the hardship of running 26.2 miles.

But this community can become an echo chamber. If anyone says running is bad for your knees, we rally against them with a collective scoff. Every time someone gives us that concerned look as we ice our joints on the couch for the third time in a month, we shrug it off and assure them it’s nothing to worry about. Whenever a scientist publishes a study suggesting that running marathons may be damaging to our hearts, we brandish our foam rollers and march as a garrison, declaring that the research methods and samples must be flawed. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded followers, we inoculate ourselves against criticism, especially since exercise is rarely frowned upon.

Religion has a similar stickiness. When people are surrounded by others of the same faith, they are less likely to question their beliefs. Unlike movies, music or even political leanings, religion has been imbued with a sacred aura that often prevents people from engaging in debate because belief and faith become so doggedly connected to one’s sense of self. Furthermore, opponents of organized religion worry that the many worldwide charities run by religious groups shield the overall movement from criticism or outright condemnation. But when that faith structure informs and even dictates its adherents’ thoughts on public policy, education, other religions and the world at large, the results aren’t always great. This can lead to otherwise friendly people harboring hateful opinions about topics like gay marriage, the building of a mosque, evolution or premarital sex.

For many of us, running is a fixed part of our personality. We stick to it through injury and illness, and go to great lengths to avoid DNFs or DNSs. We all remember how deep the explosions felt at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. It felt as if our entire community and culture had been irreparably wounded. So if anything negative comes to light about it, we take it very personally. For us, the sport goes beyond hobby or a means to achieve good fitness; it informs others about our best qualities and values.

But if science were to unequivocally prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that running is deleterious to our health, how many of us would immediately stop?

Suffering

If we run hard enough, there will come a time in any race of any distance, where we will be in pain. Our bodies scream at us to stop but training and determination keep us going, pushing through the anguish, closer to the finish. In longer races, even walking feels like a slow march to the grave as every ounce of energy has escaped our pores and been absorbed by the grass. For many of us, suffering is a crucial component of the sport. It’s the measurement of effort, improvement, and in less tangible ways, the indication that we’re living life on the fringes of our abilities. When our bodies begin to fail us, many of us can’t just stop. It’s not an option we’ve agreed to. So we continue bludgeoning our toes and squeezing the air out of our lungs until we reach the finish line’s sweet, merciful release.

Why do we do this?

Why do we do this?

The superficial comparison should be apparent: the race represents our lives and heaven is the open bar with our friends just past the finish line. But what I want to tease out is a little more unnerving: that of reward through suffering. This is pervasive in many religions and it doesn’t just apply to the most fundamental or ascetic groups. Christians are encouraged to confess their sins, to unload the mounting transgressions they’ve accumulated and carry with them. Even those who live kind, generous lives aren’t exempt as many interpretations of the Bible state that all Christians since the fall of Adam are born sinful. We are told that prior to the original sin, the world was a bountiful, perfect paradise, contrary to the one we inhabit today. The Gospel according to Matthew contains the famous phrase, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth,” which is an effective, yet insidious way of placating the indigent masses of the first century into happily bearing their burdens until their recompense in the afterlife.

As I’ve stated, the concept of salvation through suffering is key to the running experience. We trust that our pain is leading somewhere. Dean Karnazes agrees. “People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture,” he says, “though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.” This sounds very similar to Patheos‘ description of Islam as a faith that teaches “the endurance of suffering with hope and faith.”

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

No race that I’ve ever run has had a moving finish line, so we know that each step is one closer to deliverance. But spectators perched near the end of any long-distance who have witnessed the assembly line of grimaces should wonder why anyone puts themselves through this. Surely there must be better ways to find gratification and higher meaning in the world than by willing subjugation to a series of trials meant to break you down.

Chitwood posits that “to run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.” Like most of what we do, running is a means to stave off that final breath, or at least fend off the preventable diseases that can accelerate the process. But the opposite interpretation suggests something more thought-provoking yet macabre: perhaps endurance athletes push themselves to the breaking point precisely because they want to reach that liminal gap between life and death and catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable. Maybe in order to live, we have to straddle that dangerous line by approaching or even taunting death.

Faith

Whenever you have a direct, honest discussion about religion with anyone, you eventually, to borrow a running term, hit a wall. That fortified obstacle is either made of faith or doubt, two materials heavier than cast iron and deeper than bedrock. Although there is much common ground to be found between atheists and believers in the grand scheme of things, inevitably there is a moment where the two strands of thought diverge and progress becomes slow. That moment involves faith, or complete belief in something, sometimes against odds or evidence. The reason most conversations stop has to do with the equally ponderous tasks of convincing a believer to abandon faith and imploring a skeptic to embrace belief.

Faith and the echo chamber of our peers march in stride, as our loyal support group rallies behind us to bolster our beliefs and drown out the voices of dissent. This makes it easy to willingly accept the evidence or lack thereof for something, shielding us from the outside to preserve our feelings. The reason most conversations about religion ultimately break down, either between religious groups or with non-believers, is because the entire concept is built upon faith and belief, neither of which can be proven. What is it about the Bible, a book written by hundreds of people over as many years, that makes it the infallible word of God? Who is to say that Allah is the “true” god if Horus and Ra have been around far longer? Despite the questionable authorship and chronology, many people simply believe.

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

But runners aren’t immune to the willing avoidance of reason. In fact, we encounter it in every race we run. Our bodies are built with feedback mechanisms that inform us when our systems are failing. When our legs are flooded with lactic acid or our lungs feel like they’re been crushed, our brains implore us to stop. But we’ve learned to block out those signals, push through and even embrace the pain. The mantras we repeat convince us that this crucible will all be worth it when we’re sipping a craft beer at the finish line.

We’re told to have faith in our training, to simply believe that tapering will lead to stronger legs and a better performance. In most races past mile 20, we are seldom certain of how our legs will hold up. At that point, especially for first-timers, it (almost) becomes a pure exercise in faith. We don’t ever see our legs getting stronger or more energy efficient, but if all goes well, we are sometimes treated to performances that exceed our wildest expectations, often feeling like magic. Of course, this magic has been studied. Science has shown that endurance training leads to an increase in mitochondria in our muscle cells, which bolsters the body’s efficiency in consuming oxygen and improves performance.

But for a host of other reasons (weather, a poor dinner choice, last-minute illness), it doesn’t always work out. And when it all goes to hell and we end up crawling to the finish line with our hearts pounding in our hollow heads, our entire view of running having crushed us, how many of us abandon the sport?

Very few of us. In fact, we do the opposite and find ways to turn even the most grueling and ego-bruising experience into a lesson. Like anyone faced with a tragedy in their lives, rather than gaze skywards with rage, we say that running works in mysterious ways, and set our sights on the next race. We never condemn the sport itself as being irrational and rarely entertain the sacrilegious idea that humans shouldn’t be running long distances.

Mea culpa, we mutter, respect the distance, we offer, and return to our daily acts of penitence.

Why?

To be human is to be social, to gather in groups and have shared experiences. “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other,” agrees Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run. We all want to be part of a group, to have a support network. We find this in friends and family, co-workers and the buzzing masses of people that peregrinate alongside us through busy city streets.

Masses at

Masses at “mass”

Although I don’t go to church on Sundays, I understand why the weekly ritual attracts untold masses. For many it is a safe place of quiet contemplation; a gathering of like-minded people who want to improve their lives by enjoying each other’s company and paying tribute to a supreme being. For others, it’s a place to seek answers. Life is full of turmoil and chaos beyond our understanding, and the beautiful verses and parables of sacred texts might offer consolation during difficult times.

But running, unlike a communal trip to a church or even the local pub, offers us a very unusual personal connection. We spend most of our days in climate-controlled environments, sitting or moving slowly. Polished and well-dressed, we project an ideal and confident version of ourselves. But at mile 24, everyone regardless of talent or speed looks like death. We’re stripped down to our barest elements: flesh, sweat and sometimes blood. Running – or any sport for that matter – elevates our routine so we’re part of something greater. It’s a celebration of the human body and the marvelous feats it can accomplish. It makes us feel like we’re truly living. As we stand at the starting line, we can feel the current of nervous energy flowing through each jittery participant. Hours later, as we approach the finish line, stripped of elegance and poise, we know every step we took to get there was all ours, earned through initiative, dedication and perseverance.

In many ways, the tribute we pay is to ourselves.

And when it’s over, we do it all again. We ask how we could have improved, what kind of drills we should incorporate into the next training cycle, and whether we’d be comfortable running even farther. Seen this way, running has a lot in common with reincarnation. A quick search of running blogs will return many examples of runners who have, in a way, become “reborn.” The reasons for their transformations vary from a desire to lose weight, overcome illness or abandon a sedentary lifestyle. Over time, they literally become different people with new bodies, schedules, and outlooks. In times of stress or great anguish, many people and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous turn to a higher power for guidance and structure. Running it seems can also provide a similar outlet for self-improvement. There are even several popular running groups that hedge their bets by combining the two.

On that note, I’d be remiss to not mention that, independently of religious affiliation, many people experience this elevation of routine as a spiritual transformation, or as George Sheehan calls it, a “psychological and spiritual renewal.” Though I’ve encountered similar transcendental moments, I frame the experience in biological terms. Once past our limits and into the great unknowns of achievement, our brains aren’t being fed the necessary ingredients for proper cogitation. The clamp on our chest and the ever-mounting burn in our legs combine to blur the world around us and expose our deepest, most base instincts and feelings. This mental state can make us feel like we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps to a divine plane. For Rachel Toor, author and professor, the experience is profoundly spiritual. She believes “trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond.”

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience.

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience. For some, it is the experience.

The internet has even coined an official running religion called Runnism, which advocates “inner peace, a sense of belonging, fulfillment and a deeper meaning in life.” In a nutshell, they’ve encapsulated the deeper parallels between a life dedicated to the pursuit of fulfillment through running and one based on apocryphal books written two thousand years ago. The results are similar, so why not worship running?

It is very likely that all of these parallels can apply across all sports. Anyone with enough dedication to something will invite such comparisons; I just happen to be a runner. But unlike religions, who compete to provide the answers to life’s great questions, we don’t say that running is inherently better than basketball or that it will provide more happiness. We don’t wage war against CrossFit or disallow swimmers from participating in weekend 5ks. Though our core mythology involves the legendary death of Pheidippides, our sport doesn’t have a bloody history of armed conflict. Our flock, though a bit unhinged, is inclusive of all people regardless of origin, abilities or personality. It keeps us moving, inspires us and can offer a path to fulfillment if we desire one.

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn't difficult to

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn’t difficult to “rise above” the race into a meditative state.

New studies, including a very recent publication in Nature, suggest that the ability to run allowed our species to split from our ancestral simian cousins, paving the winding path to the beings we are today. If we’re searching for whatever created us, we might not have to look too far past our ability to walk upright and cover great distances. If bipedal locomotion is such a staple of what it literally means to be human, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to be active and make the most of our bodies?

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this truly breathtaking, but it’s worth repeating. The most sacred texts of the world’s largest religions describe the origins of our species and universe in grandiose, often colorful ways. But if you want a concrete, tangible answer for why we are the way we are, you might hear echoes of it with each fluid stride.

So you can see why I was confused and a little frustrated at the end of my contemplative long run. I had based a lot of my worldview on a holistic rejection of organized religion because of what I considered pernicious and atavistic qualities that had no purpose in my life. As I began connecting the dots, it seemed that I might have instead found a different outlet for whatever human impulse drives people to join a church, if such an inclination exists. But rather than follow a religion, which for most people is a decision almost entirely dictated by their parents, I chose to become a runner.

I will never claim that running is immune to criticism, nor do I believe it is the purest expression of the human experience. But then again, neither is anything else, not even art, sex or religion. That’s up to each of us to determine. Early in life, I was given an intimate look into the religious experience. As I grew older, it failed to persuade me so I subconsciously found an alternate source of personal fulfillment. Rather than work for a rewarding afterlife, running makes me feel great now and potentially in my twilight years. But it is not my reason for being, nor does it promise me anything for my efforts. It is only one way of many to enjoy the privilege of being a human for the brief, yet wondrous flicker of time we have.

I can’t say with any real certainty that deities don’t watch over us in realms beyond our imaginations. But in the absence of that knowledge, surrounded by the few truths I do know about myself and what fills me with gratification, I happily follow the path of the runner.

Special thanks to Mike for reading this article in its earliest form and for providing insight and editorial guidance.

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State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

09-PHILADELPHIA

Although almost 30,000 runners and several times as many spectators were flooding the streets of Philadelphia, it was a strangely quiet morning.  The organizers had chosen to not play any music until the start of the race out of respect to the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, which I thought was a nice gesture.  The lack of deep bass thuds had a calming effect on me as I looked for the gear check trucks.  I was shivering a little in the low 50s temperatures that had woken up the city.  All around me fidgety runners prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon, shaking sleepy legs and breathing into cupped hands.

Philadelphia, Old and New

Philadelphia, Old and New

For the first time in many races, I was nervous.  I was out to race today, something I hadn’t done since February.  Every marathon I’ve done since then had either been a training run, a trail ultra, or part of a weekend double.  Not only was this my first chance to run aggressively in a long time, but it was my last chance for the year.  I wasn’t signed up for any future target marathons and didn’t even have plans for the next potential PR, so this was it.  I performed my feverish runner duties by relating all of this (and perhaps too much more) to Bruce, the 1:40 pacer for the half marathon.  There was no one leading a 3:20 group, so I opted to join Bruce’s troupe until the halfway mark, where I would hold on for as long as possible.

At 7:03, our corral was given the green light and we shot down Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the city.  All around us were flags from many countries hanging from streetlights, as if welcoming the world to one of the country’s most historical cities.  In the center of it was Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest masonry building, pointing skyward among its more modern steel brethren.  Held up by white granite and brick, it stood out despite many surrounding buildings surpassing it in height, an awesome structure that must have mesmerized Philadelphians at the turn of the 20th century.

Right from the start, I could feel the pace.  The first miles of my marathons are usually tackled at an easy speed – especially the fast ones – but today I was out for something more.  There are several websites that let you predict your potential finishing time for various distances according to your current PRs, McMillan Running and Runner’s World to name two.  For too long my projected times had sneered at me, taunting me with what I believed were impossibly fast times.  My 5K PR of 19:07 suggests that I can run a marathon around 3:03, which is absurd.  Even my half marathon PR of 1:30:47 translates roughly to a 3:10.  I have my excuses for falling short of these lofty goals: I’m built for shorter distances; my tall body needs more calories; I don’t do enough fast long runs, etc.  Almost all of these are some variety of “I can’t.”  But on the streets of Philadelphia I was going to try.

I have to admit, it was strange trying to prove myself wrong and a meaningless algorithm right.

philadelphia-marathon-start-corralBut I was acutely aware of how fast I was running.  I normally don’t feel like I’m working until the second half, but here I was pushing from the very beginning, which wasn’t the best sign.  But I was going to do this, recklessly if necessary.  I had told a friend earlier that week that, crazy as it undoubtedly sounds, I would rather hit a hard wall at mile 17 and drag myself to the finish, heaving and sobbing but knowing I tried, than play it safe with the usual formula and PR by a minute.  Even over g-chat, I knew she had raised an eyebrow.

Through the heart of the city I continued, staying on Bruce like his shadow.  We ran through the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the expo had been held for the previous two days.  I saw my favorite sign of the race around here – a picture of Yoda, typically calm and serene with the tag “If a smart pace you run, a fast time you will achieve.”  We passed Chinatown and then the National Constitution Center, which had the emblematic “We the People” script emblazoned in huge letters on its walls.  Barely two miles in, we reached the shores of the Delaware River, New Jersey clearly visible on the other side.  Bruce’s group was an amorphous, fast-moving glob of humanity; racers would join for a few strides, ask a few questions and get swept away in the free-flowing torrent.

City Hall

City Hall

We reached 5k in 23:44, right at target pace.  As we turned back into the city, we passed Washington Square Park and then made a left turn towards the core of downtown on Chestnut Street, but not before passing the Liberty Bell Center.  Be it the large crowds, the electric city atmosphere or as a strategic move to bank time, Bruce picked up the pace.  By now, I was comfortable with the cadence, matching the stride of everyone around me as if on parade.  We passed City Hall once again with the 10k marker not long after.

Right as we left the city we were treated to the boisterous calls of University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, where many a hoodie-clad brother were manning beer stations and handing out comically red Solo cups to eager runners.  Had this been much later in the race, I might have indulged.  But at this point, I was focusing on the hills.  The reliable flatness of the first seven miles was over and my pace was seeing its own peaks and valleys.  Bruce kept reminding us that we had plenty of time to work with, so we could take the uphills at a more conservative pace.  During this section, I was alternating between feeling light-footed and sluggishly ponderous.  The pace we were running was a little ambiguous – fast enough to feel it, but not fast enough to worry.  So naturally I would alternate between confidence and concern.

Around mile 10, we made it to Fairmount Park, mostly past the ups and downs.  Many trees were shedding the last of their red canopy, reluctant to face winter.  I was still running with Bruce, but the 1:40 group had dwindled considerably.  Every time I looked around, I saw people who hadn’t started with us.  They were likely random runners who happened to be there and weren’t consciously following the ballooned pacer sign.  Right at the twelfth mile, Bruce suddenly picked up the pace, which made me suspect that he had taken it a little too easy over the last fifteen minutes.  Another 23:42 5k split and we had reached the 20k mark, close enough to the finish line to hear the muffled echo of the announcer’s voice reverberating off buildings.

philadelphia-marathon-downtown-google-earth-map

Even after completing several marathons, it’s never easy to hear the race announcer’s enthusiasm, knowing you’re only halfway there.  Despite high energy levels and the assurance of knowing that I’ve delayed complete exhaustion for many miles, it still sucks to hear him congratulate runners as they finish.  I can see them stop running and it makes every step a little more difficult.  It’s like starving in a restaurant for hours and watching the waiter bring an entire tray of sizzling steaks to the table next to you (and they were waiting for half as long).

To make matters worse, the second half of the race course wasn’t very thrilling.  I’ve seen it in many other races – the half marathon gets the vast majority of the sights, leaving the marathoners to face a formulaic out-and-back for the roughest miles.  I understand, it saves money and manpower, but 6.5-miles out and a mirror-image trek back sometimes feels like we’re being punished for wanting to run farther.  To be completely selfish, what if we reversed the course and let marathoners finish in the city?  And we can ignore how much costlier it would be to shut down those roads for longer in the day.

Pushing the finish line behind us with every breath, marathoners spent the vast majority of their dedicated portion on Kelly Road alongside the Schuylkill River.  Small crowds appeared every now and then but for most of it, we runners were our only company.  Though monotonous, the course was actually quite beautiful.  But I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted because by mile 16, it was getting harder to keep the negative thoughts away.  I was feeling the pace and it felt fast.  At this point in my fast marathons is when I normally start to push the pace, accelerating almost magically and laugh haughtily when I sneak a glance at my watch.  But today it felt like a chore just to keep it up.

As if to cement those dark thoughts in my head, the course briefly shot over the river via the Falls Bridge, after which we would run downhill for about a third of a mile, turn around, and run back up.  It sapped a lot of energy and willpower from me and marked the beginning of my slowdown.  Once done with this dastardly detour, we were back on Kelly Road on the original path away from the finish line.  Although I passed 30k still on pace, the last 5k split was the first to breach 24 minutes.  As we approached the town of Manayunk, I saw a runner ahead who had collapsed.  Spectators had moved him on the sidewalk, hoisting his legs in the air, his face oddly peaceful.  I saw an older man cross the street on the phone with an emergency responder.

I hope he’s okay, I thought.

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

The crowds were out in full force in Manayunk.  We ran appropriately down Main Street towards the turnaround.  Aid station volunteers and spectators blended together into one energizing display of support and affection.  Having reached the farthest point from the finish line, I made the hairpin turn and began the journey toward the finish.  The roar of the town’s denizens was invigorating, but not enough to distract me from fatigue.  The road was mincing the bottom of my feet and my gaze began to droop slightly.  Just after leaving the town, as the crowd support returned to thin levels, I took a walk break.  I stepped to the middle of the road to avoid an ambulance bounding towards me, almost brushing shoulders with marathoners running in the opposite direction.

I walked, hands resting on my hips, taking stock of what had happened.

That first half was too aggressive, I admitted to myself.  I couldn’t reasonably expect to go from running 1:44s in the first half to 1:39 and keep it strong.  I recently wrote about how foolish it is for the world to expect a two-hour marathon to happen soon given current performances, and here I was, thinking I was capable of a similar quantum leap in performance.  Why was I special enough to break free of the shackles of statistical analysis?  What made me think I could just defy the odds?

logan-square-fountainBut although the intensity had gotten to me earlier than expected, I found that I wasn’t too upset.  At least I had tried.  And I soon realized that I was still running around an 8:10 pace, which was significantly far from the usual 9 to 10-minute bonk speed I can muster after reaching the point of exhaustion.  So onwards I ran at whatever speed felt doable.  I couldn’t say the same for the runners around me, who hadn’t collectively decide on their own pace.  Some passed me, skipping nimbly over the pavement while others slumped by the wayside in worse shape than me.  There was nothing else to do but keep going.

And then something strange happened.  Around mile 23, I assessed my current situation.  The bottoms of my feet were numb, but they weren’t keeping me from running.  Make no mistake about it, they hurt.  But it wasn’t like a spike in your quad, where it leeches your motivation and self-worth or a seizing hamstring that stops you cold in your tracks and makes you reevaluate your life decisions.  My breathing was controlled, I wasn’t short of air; my leg muscles were working, all systems reporting.  Really, there was nothing going completely wrong.

So I decided to do something.  Something beautiful and pathetic in its simplicity.

I decided to run faster.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

And I did.  Over the last three miles, I picked it up, bit by bit, passing runners and inching closer to the finish line.  At this point in the race, even a tiny incline would stop me in my tracks, but I pushed on, even with mile 25 being mostly an ascent.  I became the passer, leaving tired runners behind me.  I know in my bones that I couldn’t have sped up like this in Manayunk; I did not have it in me to push the pace.  But at that twenty-third mile, it just felt like the correct (and obvious) thing to do and my body responded.  Part of me thinks it was the pull of the finish line, but I’ve never smelled sweet victory three miles out.  The two marathons I ran six weeks earlier, which put some seriously acidic pain in my legs, might also serve to explain this sudden surge.  Perhaps I hadn’t digested the five GUs I had put into my system until that very moment.

But something happened.  Perhaps it was the body finally accepting that it was made for running, that it was finally capable of handling the continued beating, even after hours of it.  Was this the moment of transcendence?  Had I finally become the master of my pain, one with my suffering?  Or was it something more banal?  Had I simply conditioned my legs to tolerate the strain of a hard run?  Had I been overestimating the energy-syphoning effects of a bonk all this time?

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

Although I never found the definitive answer, it didn’t matter because I was smiling for the rest of the race.  My pace charts may have won again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself or post a competitive time.

I kept speeding up as I passed the twenty-fifth mile, returning to the boom of the finish line.  The marathon had an excellent final stretch, which was run on wide and open streets, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the green Eakins Oval.  It felt like the entire city had opened up to me, like I was entering an arena with philadelphia-marathon-medalresplendent, blue columns made of glass and steel.  I eventually crossed the 8-minute threshold, and as I heard the announcer around the corner I somehow managed to speed up to a 6:45 for the final dash.  Although my performance was a positive split, I will never complain about finishing in 3:25:28, my third fastest marathon to date.

Hours later, as I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak sandwich like a combine, I thought about how this race fit into my experience as a runner.  It wasn’t a game changer but it certainly put my abilities in perspective.  There was once a time when I considered an 8:40 marathon pace to be ambitious, but today I stayed below that, even on empty.  It was an encouraging indicator that, given time, dedication and discipline, we are capable of remarkable change, even if it’s not immediately apparent on the surface.

In a way, it was very similar to the first two days of the weekend.  Before I toed the line in Philadelphia, I drove to the historic, Appalachian town of Lancaster to visit Brandon, a fellow Wildcat and fraternity brother.  Although we were both very involved in the development of our chapter and both served as president at some point in our undergraduate careers, we didn’t become friends.  Our social circles certainly intertwined but our personalities and vision for the chapter didn’t always line up.  But in the years since graduation, something happened that made us reconnect.  Before I had ever run my first 10k, Brandon was already a two-time marathoner and an Ironman, so that probably had something to do with it.

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

I visited his and his wife Ashley’s lovely home in Lititz, just outside of Lancaster.  I got to meet Jackson, their adorable 12-week baby (who I think looks a lot like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles and not just because he’s a baby) and play with their vivacious golden retriever.  It really was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.  In fact, if I were able to send this post back in time to myself in the year 2003, I doubt I would react with anything but incredulity.  I’m running how many marathons?  What is this touch-screen computer that I have in my pocket?  Brandon is married?  To a really nice girl?  And is responsible for the welfare of a CHILD?

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

My reverie was broken by the cooks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks barking out an order through the onion steam.  I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to go, lest I miss my flight.  I stood up from the chair and hissed a few painful breaths as my legs cracked through their concrete casing.  I had completed my 19th marathon, 36th state, spent a fun weekend with friends and learned a few lessons along the way.  The 3:20 threshold continues to beckon me, with the Boston Qualifier even further down that arduous road.  Although I haven’t planned it yet, I need a target race for next year, one where I crash through every wall and get closer to that prize.  I’ll run more hills, throw in more intervals and push the pace on my long runs.  Bit by bit, I’ll make it happen.  I’ll face those vexing time charts and chip away at the rock on my shoulders, with every run facing the almost sisyphean task of hoping to stay strong over 26.2 miles.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 045 (PA)