Courage to Run

“Courage to run” may not sound too much like a topic that would have much to do with the spiritual, or with spiritual development and discipleship. After all, most folks I talk with think that running is somewhat crazy, and that runners must be a little nuts. I’ve heard folks say how we are simply not made for running. Our bodies aren’t designed for it. They seek to support this with the misinformed and incorrect assertion that running “destroys the knees.” I’ve even had some folks quote the apostle Paul’s words to his young protégée, Timothy, as a reason for why running (physical training) is spiritually superfluous and unnecessary: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4.8). And while it is hard to argue against Paul, I do not think it is as binary, as cut and dry, as choosing one over the other. After all, Paul spent hours upon hours and days upon days walking great distances across the Roman Empire. Physical training, it seems, was very much part of his everyday life. As a matter of fact, one might even imagine that it was during these long solitary treks that Paul wrestled with and hammered out much of his theology. They were times of prayer and deep spirituality. It also seems to me that in our day, where we’ve become increasingly sedentary, we are damaging more than just our bodies—our hearts and our arteries, spikes in blood-pressure and blood-sugar—we just might be damaging ourselves spiritually as well.

So that brings us back to running. And not just running, but specifically the courage to run. You might wonder just what sort of courage does it really take to run? After all, it seems you just put one foot in front of the other—rapidly. Certainly, that doesn’t seem very courageous. But then again, perhaps a closer look at the concept of courage might help. Courage and being (ontology) are very closely linked throughout the history of philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle understood courage to be the ethical act in which a person affirmed their own being in spite of those things that might conflict with that essential self-affirmation. They both understood courage to be the striving toward what is noble (the good, the beautiful), the affirmation of one’s essential nature. Courage fulfills its potentiality and actualizes its perfections. It is this idea of affirming one’s own essential nature that is important. It is not courageous to act in ways that are inimical to our essence. True courage is the act of affirming our essential self, the self we were created to be. Here is where courage and ontology seem to touch. Courage isn’t simply an isolated act of virtue, one virtue among others. It is that virtuous act of affirming my essential existence. It is that ethical act of being that which I am. Courage is courageous because it eschews everything that seeks to obfuscate the true self, the person inside, the being I was created to be. So the question is, who am I? Who are we? And how do we find out?    

I just finished reading an article in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture in which the authors argued that endurance running is genetically wired into us. It is part and parcel of our evolutionary development. In other words, we are wired in both body and mind to be runners. We humans are uniquely constructed for endurance running. And not only are we physically constructed for endurance running, but in that physical construction, there is a nascent spirituality attached to the act of running itself, one that is awakened in the neurobiology of endurance running. Through running, we connect with our environment, ourselves, and the mystical. Through endurance running we transcend ourselves, touching the sacred, laying hold of the divine. The fact that some of this can be traced to our basic physiology—the pounding of muscles, the rhythmic breathing and striding supersaturates the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems as well the neural regions through the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine (runners high)—only seems to support the fact that we humans are uniquely designed to transcend ourselves, and that running is a means of achieving that transcendence. Running is not just (or primarily) a physical activity; it is uniquely spiritual.

George Sheehan said much the same thing in his book Running and Being. “This may come as a surprise to the physical-fitness leaders,” he says. “Physical-fitness programs have long been based on the desire to lead a long life, to forestall heart attacks, to feel better generally or to improve your figure. No one ever told us that the body determined our mental and spiritual energies. That with the new body we can put on a new person and build a new life, the life we were always designed to lead but lost with the body we enjoyed in in our youth.” It takes courage to lead this sort of life. It takes courage to put aside all the distraction, all the “sling and arrows of outrageous fortune” that stand over and stand against us, and to put on a new self, a new person, one discovered in the deep places that form our essential nature, one found in the ecstasy of play.

Diane Ackerman talks about this idea of “deep play” in her book with the same name. She says that deep play always involves the sacred and the holy, often hidden in the most unlikely places. For some it may be in climbing of a mountain, or in diving deep beneath the waves of the ocean. For others it may be in the ebb and flow of catching a wave or the thrill of catching a ball. For me it is in the solace and solitude of running. Ackerman says that while it is true that all creatures enjoy some form of play, for humans it is different. Play is natural to children. Even as adults we find time to play as a means of socializing, developing friendships, or even as competition. But she says that “there is a deeper form of play, akin to rapture and ecstasy, that humans relish, even require to feel whole.” She says that deep play is the “ecstatic form of play.” The word ecstatic literally means to stand outside oneself (ek=out; stasis=stand); it is to transcend one’s self. Plotinus viewed ecstasy as the culmination of human possibility. It is a sort of returning to our source, a union with God. It is this same sense of returning to God that Augustine was getting at when he said in the beginning of The Confessions, “You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and draw us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rest in you.”

The courage to run is the courage to open ourselves to that return, to that rest, that joy, that can only come from God. Certainly, you don’t have to run to do this. There are other avenues. But for me running is the most natural (not always the easiest, however). It seems to me that there is something within us—within our genetic makeup (and recent science seems to back this up)—that predisposes us to running as the means to this sort of transcendence. There is something in the way we are wired that brings a deep sense of joy and peace when we run. In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Well, I may not be fast, but when I run, I too feel God’s pleasure. The courage to run is really about having the courage to find that things, that form of deep play, which stands us outside of ourselves so that we might find our true self in the beatific vision of God, which ultimately fulfills our essential nature and actualizes our potential. In that, I believe, we truly feel God’s pleasure.