Running Religion

 

Runners visiting the shrine of St. Pre in Oregon, USA

I heart running. So much so that my wife was talking to a friend recently and responded to her friend’s concern for my amount of running by saying, “Yeah, it is a little crazy, but at least he is enjoying it.” I run marathons, I run 5ks, I fundraise through running. I wake up at 5am, run at midnight and dream of it in my sleep.

I heart running.

To some, running is a form of release, to others it’s simply exercise, to still others it’s a crazed form of sado-masochism and to a growing minion, running is religion.

I’ve not always been such a runner (flashbacks to a chubby childhood filled with visits to the park where my dad would coax me to run one more sprint before I collapsed in a heap of mild-adolescent obesity), but in college and following I developed a keen enjoyment of running, and at that, running long distances.

You can read back through the Ubuntu archives and peruse my journey through the Dream for Three initiative when I ran three marathons in 62 days for Team World Vision.

Like I said, I heart running.

I heart running particularly because of its somewhat ascetic dimensions. While friends and family bemoan the fact that running hurts, that legs burn, lungs contract, brows sweat (along with a myriad of other body parts) and on long runs the minutes pass by like hours and the miles like molasses in January, I and many others like me really enjoy the pentative aspects of running.

Indeed, in many ways running is the new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetic disciplines, literature on the spiritual benefits of running, a fellowship for running communion, running shrines, running meditative practices and encouragement to reach out with the running gospel from running prophets and priests.

The evidence is everywhere – from the newest addition of Runner’s World to Border’s bookstacks to blogs to my local running club.

Asceticism is severe self-discipline and avoidance of indulgence. Clearly, the weekend warrior is not as much of an ascetic as a full blown ultra marathoner, yet an ascetic foundation links the two together. You might compare such a spectrum of running asceticism to that of a Roman Catholic parishioner fasting from meat during Lent to a full blown solitary monk tucked away in a cave somewhere in the depths of the Egyptian desert.

Whatever form asceticism takes it always involves discipline for the sake of advancement. Typically, religious adherents use spiritual and physical disciplines, often quite austere ones at that, to grow closer to the divine and to follow a path of true religious devotion. To outside observers some of these grave disciplines seem downright strange. For example, there is the story of a Christian ascetic who one day slaps a mosquito on his shoulder. Upon realizing that this was a denial of suffering and that suffering was a part of his walk with Jesus he promptly walked down to a nearby swamp, shed his clothing and stood waist deep in the waters for several hours. Upon returning from the swamp he walked into the city and not one could recognize him because he was disfigured and swollen from the mass of mosquito bites he endured.

Intense.

An observer might react in a similar way to the story of multiple runners who compete annually in the Badwater Ultramarathon from the depths of Death Valley to the heights of the Mt. Whitney portal amidst the searingly hot temperatures of mid-July. Enduring stomach illness, sunburn, melting shoes, festering blisters, tearing muscles, hallucinations and sheer exhaustion to complete a 135-mile course that gains some 8,000 feet in elevation. All for what? A belt-buckle and a cheap certificate.

Or, is the experience much more than that?

A perusal of recollections of Badwater Ultra experiences include references to the spiritual journey, the solitude of the course and even one reference to fellow Badwater “Mystics.”

The feelings of pain that a runner experiences in training and in racing all pale in comparison to the rush of completing a race, overcoming the adversity of a run-ending cramp or struggling through salt-crusted dehydration to attain the famed and mythical “runner’s high.”

In fact that adrenaline rush and euphoric feeling known as “the runner’s high” can be said to substitute the “mystical union” that people such as Bernard of Clairveaux or Teresa of Avila have described. The “runner’s high” is a physio-chemical reality that is induced by the body’s release of endorphins during extreme conditions. It is, by all comparisons, similar to an orgasm. There is a rush of emotion, physical relaxation and an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility. Any survey of mystical ascetic writers would reveal just how similar a mystics “union” with the divine is to a runner’s “high.”

I personally have touched the runner’s high and felt its extreme embrace. During the 2010 LA Marathon after running the first 20 miles in 2:24 I was on the verge of total self-destruction. I had a major cramp in my right side, my legs were sore and it was getting hot outside. I had little to no compunction to want to finish that race. However, I looked at my time and realized I could possibly qualify for the Boston Marathon if I just maintained a 8-minute per mile pace. Step-by-step and breath-by-breath I pushed through the final six miles of the race and finished in 3:10:01 with 58 seconds to spare on qualifying for Boston. As I hit the finish line chills worked their way up my spine and tears flowed from my eyes. It was, and still is, the toughest physical adventure I’ve ever endured and I rode that high for a couple of hours after that momentous marathon.

Thus, one can easily see how running is the new asceticism with its focus on overcoming pain and enduring suffering for the sake of the running experience and even the mystical “runner’s high.” Beyond that, running even features as an increasingly popular form of meditation in established religious circles.

In a May 2010 feature article in Runner’s World Claire Trasegar wrote in “Transcendental Steps” how a retreat center in Colorado leads workshops and retreats on “running with the mind of meditation and yoga.” Runners are encouraged to meditate on their breath as they run, take in their surroundings and experience the transcendental steps of running meditation. The words and ideas behind such running methods are all essentially that of the traditional Buddhist monk and borrow heavily from that religion’s established ascetic tradition. While also being an example of the modern Westernization of Buddhism (particularly in its Zen manifestations) transcendental running programs such as this one also highlight how running down a path can serve as a new pathway towards religious enlightenment in our pluralistic world.

As such, running has created its own forms of fellowship and its very own religious shrines and sacred locales.

Running clubs across the world provide runners a means of fellowship quite like the local synagogue or church. Indeed, in most running clubs you can find the traditional aspects of any church: fellowship, discipleship, worship, service and outreach. Runners fellowship via regular training runs, races and social events like pub runs. They learn from local talent and invite experts to come and speak at club meetings. They admire and revere their best runners and venerate the pros who set records and win races. They volunteer at running events, raise money and organize around special needs in critical times supporting one another through conversation and comfort. Many testify to how running and running communities has a positive impact on the community and can change lives for the better. Finally, running clubs and individuals who run engage in outreach by inviting friends to “join” the group and become part of the “growing running community.” This aspect of running was even recently encouraged in the December 2010 edition of Runner’s World when an author said that some of the best part of running is getting others to run as well (she even mentioned how she would go after sluggish friends with a “missionary zeal”).

Furthermore, there are running shrines. Ultra marathon trail runner and writer Rachel Toor writes of her love affair with trail running in her op-ed piece, “Ode to Dirt.” In it she says, “Because 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. Because dirt is elemental.” The free trail has become the new communion rail where the religious adherent and the divine meet in sublime encounter.

Beyond this, there are physical places where runner’s flock to behold the “awe” of a place steeped in running lore. All you have to do is mention places like Hopkington, the Oregon University Track or Tavern on the Green and runners are filled with nostalgia, excitement or a combination of the two. There are even literal running shrines like Pre’s Rock in Oregon.

Then there are the ubiquitous prophets of the religion of running. No more vocal and more outlandish than the Old Testament’s Isaiah, ultra-marathon legend and running spokesperson Dean Karnazes constantly calls on all human beings to enjoy the fullness of the human spirit and go for a run.  Dean Karnazes sees running as ultimately a spiritual experience. He writes, “He [the marathoner] commands his body and mind to do the unthinkable, to endure inconceivable hardship, all in the name of accomplishing something he deems noble and worthwhile.” To this point I and many others could easily follow. Then he concludes, “The marathon is not about running; it is about salvation.” To that end Karnazes preaches the running gospel in word and deed by regularly appearing at running events across the world and engaging in physical feats of running extremism like running 10 marathons back to back in a 262 mile race or running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. The man is an animal, all for the sake of converting you, the reader, into a runner.

 

Here the author of this post poses with Dean Karnazes at the LA Marathon Expo

Then there is Ryan Hall who stands at the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum. While Karnazes is a professed agnostic, Hall is a devout Christian who regularly intertwines his faith and running. Although many may see Hall as Karanzes’ opposite, for both men spirituality and running are all tied up together. Hall shares, “Running has always been deeply spiritual for me. My desire is to have my training be more biblically designed…” For Hall and for many others running is more than a recreational activity, it is a path of spiritual devotion and enlightenment.

As you can read running religion often funnels into established religious traditions such as Christianity (Ryan Hall), Judaism (Running Rabbis) and Buddhism (Transcendental Running) to name a few. Yet, in the midst of this fray of religious-running syncretism there is the solitary voice of Kaj Arno, who, in 2009 announced the birth of a new religion – Runnism.

For Kaj and his followers the connections between running and spirituality are clear. Runnism is as much of a religion as Hinduism or Catholicism. Indeed, it may even be superior with its focus on expanding past borders made by human hands and human language. With that belief in mind the founder engages in an aggressive PR campaign speaking at conferences, publishing via social media and being involved in running events as a herald of the new running religion. Kaj Arno writes of runnism:

Born out of the mental peace of mind instilled by long-distance running, Runnism worships physical well-being. It starts from a simple insight: looking at running as a religion holds the promise of a happier, more energetic everyday life.Classical religions are role models for Runnism. Be it Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or any other religion, practitioners testify of inner peace, a sense of belonging, fulfillment and a deeper meaning in life. Religion can provide consolation in times of hardship. Religion provides simple answers to some of the most pressing questions in life. From a non-believer perspective, practising a religion may pose some constraints on everyday life — dietary constraints, daily routines and other limitations. Believers are gladly willing to accept these, as they perceive the rewards to be greater than the loss.Running is no different. And that’s where Runnism comes in. Of course, Runnism isn’t a true religion, and it is compatible with any of today’s world religions, as well as with atheism. Runnists are tolerant and respectful of true religions, while at the same time approaching life with a light heart and lots of humour. Runnism is fun!


Here, nearing the end of a marathon of blogging, you, the reader, may feel like you have never read so much about running or cared about it being a religion. However, surveying running’s religious aspects and even its religious aspirations showcases a growing spiritual trend in the post-modern world. Not only is Runnism, or non-affiliated running religious paths, a form of new world religion that values a different path than what is offered in traditional religion it also displays the human desire for legalism, asceticism and struggle in the religious pursuit. Throughout religious history the ultimate suffering of death remained at the forefront of theological thought. Through religion humans attempted to make sense of death and its inherent and impending doom for all things “human.” In order to alienate death as an experience that we can integrate into our reality and foreseeably conquer we introduced suffering as a key element of the religious experience. Thus, religious asceticism became a way to mitigate the ultimate suffering of death and a mirror of that suffering all with the end goal in mind – that through this suffering there is hope and there is joy and release from all pain. Call it what you want: nirvana, beatific vision or paradise suffering on earth produces ecstasy beyond the grips of death. In the same way, modern religious running adherents seek to minimize the sting of death by highlighting how the human body and the human spirit can overcome pain and adversity to claim the prize of finishing the race, pushing limits and owning that simple little medal or belt-buckle.

At its core the religion of running, in both its formal and informal manifestations, reflects the human religious pursuit to understand death within a system that relegates it to being a minimal experience in relation to divine ecstasy. Often, asceticism served to become a recapitulation of that cosmic reality and it is no different in running religion today. To run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.

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Filed under New Age, Religion and the Public Sphere, Worldview

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