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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

What Runners Teach the Rest of Us

Psychologists often talk about extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Examples of extrinsic motivation are seeking money, power, prestige, as well as instances where we are simply required to do something by our parents, our boss, or some other entity.

When it comes to the sport of running, though, our motivation is mostly intrinsic, and our accountability is mostly to ourselves. No one runs the Chicago Marathon for the money or the publicity, unless they are already a celebrity or already one of the top runners in the world. Getting your name in tiny print in the Chicago Tribune the next morning is not exactly a publicity bonanza. In the sport of running there are no team practices or scrimmages for which we have to appear.

Runners do not appear on stagelike performers, whose failure to practice or rehearse will be obvious to the audience. The runner’s motivation is mostly internal. While those who complete the marathon do receive a completion medal, it is not really in the same category as a World Series ring, a Super Bowl ring, or an Oscar, or Emmy, or Grammy. That is why many people over the years have spotted a connection between running and the spiritual life.

Since running is probably the world’s oldest sport, it is not surprising that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews would use running as a metaphor for the spiritual life: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). The discipline required to train for a marathon is the same discipline required for growing in prayer and service to others. Running is an ascetic practice. In both running and praying we must discipline ourselves against the lure of comfort and convenience.

Halie Scott, a committed Christian and runner, wrote about how she got started running in an article in Christianity Today. She was with a group of friends visiting Yosemite National Park. They stopped for a sandwich at one of the food vendors in the park, and she realized that she had left her water bottle in the car. She literally trudged back 100 yards or so to retrieve her water bottle, as if the effort involved was an unconscionable burden. “On the way back to the group, I became really disgusted with myself. How did I become a person too lazy to walk the length of a football field?’ She realized that she had become equally lazy with Bible reading and other religious activities, getting around to them only when she felt like it. In the months and years that followed, she learned to use the self-discipline she developed for running to develop a deeper relationship with God.

Nick Ripatrazone describes the “runner’s high” that some runners achieve as an opportunity to enter into prayer itself. “When I am fully present to my body, I can experience the absence of myself and enter into communion with God. Sometimes I offer silent prayers, while other days I simply listen to what God wants me to hear. . . . When I fall away from running or from praying, I feel out of sorts and lazy; alien to my best self .

When something becomes habit, it becomes part of our soul and skin. I run to run faster; I pray to pray better.” There is something else that we churchgoers can learn from runners. Running builds community, and community is integral to the marathon itself. Runners exerting themselves to make it another mile give one another the inspiration they need to run another mile. Up and down the Marathon Route are aid stations to help the wounded and supply water. And then there are cheering crowds lining the course, which in the Book of Hebrews are compared to the communion of saints who urge us on to the finish line. The Marathon also builds community in another way. Those who started the Marathon back in the 1970’s designed the course as a vehicle for introducing people to the diverse neighborhoods that make up Chicago. And perhaps in the present era, when so many things divide us and our city is struggling to welcome the endless busloads of migrants arriving at outdoor step, a reminder that we are one community is more important than ever. Crowds will be cheering for the same reason in all parts of town. Running really does build community. And that’s what church should be about.


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