7 Spiritual Lessons from Running
I can trace my zeal for running back to a single moment: Summer 2003, at Yosemite National Park. My friends and I sat down to eat chips and deli sandwiches in the park’s Village Store when I realized I’d left my water bottle in the car. As I trudged the dusty 100 yards back through the dirt parking lot, I was appalled by my own dejection. How did I become a person too lazy to walk the length of a football field?
That single moment catapulted me into more than a decade of fitness fanaticism. I’ve benched my body weight; scaled 14ers, some of the biggest mountain peaks in the US; hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, and finally, last year, completed my first marathon. This year, as the running season ramps up, I’ve already begun hitting the pavement here in Colorado to train for my first triathlon and my second marathon (and okay, the Bolder Boulder).
Of all my fitness endeavors, running has done the most to improve both my physical and spiritual fitness. Given all the lessons I’ve learned on the running trail, Hebrews 12:1 resonates deeply with me as it tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).
1. Dream Goldilocks dreams.
Setting goals can be tricky, because they must be challenging, but also achievable. Too far in either direction, and they won’t stretch us or will set us up for failure. Both outcomes end in disappointment. Like Goldilocks, we want to land in the middle ground that’s “just right.”
My goal for my first marathon wasn’t to BQ (runner’s parlance for a fast enough time to qualify for the Boston Marathon). My goal was simply to finish. I took stock of my running times and abilities, and I knew I could work my way up to 26.2 miles, but not in a fast enough time to earn a spot in the one of the best-known races in the world.
This measured mindset applies also to sanctification. The Christian life is both journey and process; we are not yet the person we want to be nor the person God ultimately calls us to be. Too many Christians make the equal and opposite errors of trying too little or too hard. Try too little and we fail to grow in holiness at all; try too hard and we risk hopelessness at our perceived inability to grow. The task is to learn to dream Goldilocks dreams, to take steps towards holiness and to trust the work of the Holy Spirit for our spiritual growth.
2. Go rote.
When preparing for my first marathon—and now, my second—I didn’t feel like completing a training run. I don’t always love running, but I love having run. (Running is often like writing—I love having written, but don’t always like the process.) When I don’t feel like running, I go rote, following through with my plan without thinking too much about it. I run and the accomplishment colors my entire day in a rosy glow.
There are a thousand excuses that keep us from the disciplines that help us grow in the faith—we’re too tired, the demands are too tedious, etc. In these moments, the solution is—to borrow a mantra from Nike—just do it. Go rote. Stick to your prayers, to the reading of Scriptures, to gathering with the community of believers—whether you feel like it or not. And often enough, we’re rewarded with those efforts with unexpected blessings. Just as the physical discipline of training runs prepare us for the race, so do the spiritual disciplines prepare us to meet handle the demands and adversities of life with deeper faith.
3. Some hills you can own.
I train at the base of the Rocky Mountains at 6,000 foot elevation, where the Great Plains crumple into small, rippled hills as they cram into the immovable Rockies. Those hills often seem intimidating, far beyond my ability to summit. But there are some hills I can own and easily summit; when I do, I’m delighted and surprised. My job is to trust again my training and experience, and move forward.
The are some hills we inevitable meet with in life, we believe are far beyond our strength. The temptation there is to give up, to camp at the bottom of that challenge. But that’s not our job, and not what God demands of us. We are to trust him, trust our past experiences of his faithfulness to get us up and over the mountaintop.
4. Some hills, you can’t.
Conversely, there are some hills I can’t own. The elements are against me: I’ve trained too much, my system is too taxed, the wind too high, the hill is larger than any I’ve met before. I can’t own it, but I can crest it, slowly.
The tragedies of life are like those hills. The loss of a child or a spouse. Financial ruin. Addiction. Sexual assault. Divorce. Deep depression. You won’t get over them easily, but again, you can’t camp out at the bottom of that mountain. You must go on. By recognizing our limitations, all the things in life that are indeed more than we can handle, we can begin to trust our experiences to the Lord again, moving along slowly, carefully.
5. You need encouragement.
There is a point in a marathon that runners know as The Wall. It’s when you think you can’t go on. It’s so common a phenomenon you can almost depend upon it. The elite athletes have compiled numerous tricks and trips to move you beyond The Wall, mostly mental. Others with similar training and physical abilities have succeeded, and if they have broken through The Wall, so can we.
In life, whether we’re reaching for a goal or just trying to move through a difficult season, we will hit The Wall. You can depend on it. Alone, we’re tempted to give into the lie we can’t go on, we’ve not strength or wisdom enough to break through The Wall. But the elite athletes of the Christian faith have provided wisdom for us to move through. We can mine the wisdom of the ancients or seek the solace of Christian community.
6. You need rest.
Whether you're training for a marathon or just running for pleasure, you can’t run hard every day. Contrary to popular belief, more running won’t make you better; it makes you weaker. It’s during rest, not activity, when our muscles are repaired and strengthened.
Since spiritual formation revolutionized the way we understand our faith, Christians have placed renewed emphasis on the need for rest in our daily lives. Our souls need rest just as our bodies do, but we’re reluctant to really, truly rest. Our society provides no room or philosophy for it. Resting, to our thinking, adds no value. But the spiritual truth mirrors the physical: it is in rest, not in activity, where our strength is built.
7. You need celebration.
I knew long before I completed my marathon that I would need to prioritize celebration. I’ve never been good at celebration or ever particularly pleased with myself when I achieve a goal, because I’m always looking forward. I’m too busy looking at the next mountain to celebrate the one I’ve just summited. But failing to celebrate robs me of the satisfaction of appreciating a job well done, a race well run.
Failing to celebrate the big and small victories in our lives robs us of the opportunity to appreciate God’s faithfulness and what he has accomplished through us. Celebration is woven throughout the Scriptures. Built into the Old Testament law were many feasts and festivals. These regular times of celebration gave the Israelites room to reflect God’s saving acts and providence throughout history, giving them confidence to face present and future troubles.