Running: Good For the Soul (But Not For the Sole)

There are days when I think that, if God intended for man to run, he would’ve given them running shoes and hydration packs—or, at the very least, discount coupons to the nearest sporting goods shop.
Oh, I know there are runners out there who believe that running is God’s favorite athletic event. They’ll write race-centric Bible verses on their shoelaces before a big race (“1 Cor. 9:26!”) point out that John’s “beloved disciple” was faster than Peter and tirelessly quote Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire.
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast,” Liddell tells us. “And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
When I run, I do not feel God’s pleasure. Though sometimes I think I hear his laughter.
God did not make me fast. He did not make me strong. He did not give me, frankly, any particular desire to run. And yet, like a bull determined to ballroom dance or a howler monkey set on making an American Idol appearance, I push myself to run almost every day. If running is God’s favorite sport—which, considering the pain involved, I don’t see how it could be—I believe I help keep the obligatory blooper reel stocked.
See, here’s the thing: I run, but I am not a real runner. I know what real runners look like and what they wear and how they run. I see them gracefully bounding like gazelles all over town, they of the wicking shells and multi-bottle hydration belts and bumper stickers that say “runner.” I am not of that type. I am, frankly, not capable of it.
I know runners who enjoy running. Almost all of them are insufferable.
My boss runs every day at lunch without fail: If there’s a snowstorm, he has his administrative assistant dig a path for him as he runs. Both invariably come back into the office with massive smiles plastered across their faces, apparently thrilled to be in such simultaneous proximity to nature, to God and to frostbite. Running makes him happy, he tells me. It keeps him centered, he says. It gives him time to contemplate God, to pray. I try to pray, too—and sometimes find myself whispering involuntary prayers during particularly long runs: “God,” I say, “Please, if it’s in your will, help me not to throw up all over my new running shoes. Help my kneecaps stay attached to whatever they’re supposed to be attached to. Please, keep them from exploding and hurting innocent bystanders.”
I have a friend who runs. “The first hour is for the body,” he tells me. “ The second is for the spirit.” Perhaps—but only because your body is probably close to dead by the end of the first hour, so really that’s all that’s left.
My own daughter loves to run. There are few things she’d rather do. I’ve always known there was something wrong with that girl.
I rarely enjoy running. I think I’ve experienced what they call a “runner’s high” about twice in my life, and both times it was followed by the lesser-known “runner’s low,” in which your legs are so sore that you have to scale staircases by sitting on them and moving your rear upward, step by step.
I run not for the sake of the run, but for the sake of the meal afterward. I run so I can eat like a famished billy goat and still fit into my five-year-old pants. When I’m training for a marathon, I’ll go on long weekend runs early in the morning. And then, as an after-run reward, I’ll zip over to McDonald’s and buy myself a couple of Sausage McMuffins as a reward.
Oddly enough, I dofeel God’s pleasure in Sausage McMuffins. Though there’s a chance that feeling might just be the cholesterol lodging inside my arteries, causing a certain lightness of head.
Why run, you ask? Why not just get yourself roomier pants?
Habit, I suppose. If I don’t run, I feel guilty. And as many Christians know, guilt can be a powerful motivator. I ran my first marathon about 10 years ago because a good friend of mine talked me into it. And, after having geared nine months of my life toward covering a ludicrous distance of 26.2 miles in a matter of hours—on foot—it’d feel wrong to just say, “well, that’s that. Where’s my barcalounger?”
And then there’s this, too. While I don’t particularly like running—that is, putting one foot in front of the other about half a million times—I like what comes with it. I like the discipline it asks of me, because I am deeply undisciplined. I like the sacrifices it requires, because I am often selfish. I even find I like the pain—not in a masochistic sort of way, but because with the aches and soreness that sometimes accompany running, I know that I’m doing something with my body. I’m not wasting it. And that’s the strangest thing about running for me. I find that if I don’t do it for a week or two, I feel a little sick. I find that I miss it: the regimen, the discipline, even the pain. As tedious as some of my runs can be, the whole they leave when they’re no longer there is worse.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance,” wrote James in his New Testament book (James 1:2-4). “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians (Col. 1:24).
My little pavement-pounding regimen is certainly not a test or trial of faith. When I run, I am not suffering for the good of the Church. I don’t want to prop my aches and pains to the real tribulations people suffer both for their faith and in the midst of faith. But in a small (perhaps very small) way, I think I’m a little closer to understanding how someone can be joyful—truly joyful—in the midst of trials and pain. And it helps me grasp the nature of faith a bit better … or, at least, how I sometimes experience faith.

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