A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
Relentless Forward Progress: What running 100 miles taught me about the spiritual life
January 5, 2015
Whenever someone finds out I’ve run a 100 mile race, they usually ask two questions; “why?” and “how?” The first question is hard, if not impossible, to answer. If it isn’t immediately obvious why someone would want to do this, then I probably won’t be able to explain. For most people who run these things, it’s about finding your limits and pushing past them, conquering something difficult, and relishing the sheer audacity of the endeavor.
The question of “how” is a little more straightforward. Just don’t stop running. Most hundred mile races are on trails, usually in the mountains. There are aid stations about every five miles stocked with food, water, first aid, and other supplies. The races are uninterrupted so there aren’t any nap breaks. You can stop and rest if you want, but the timer keeps ticking and sitting down makes it pretty hard to stand back up again. The non-stop nature of the race means at least some of it will be run in the dark so a headlamp is a must. And that’s about it. Keep drinking, keep eating, keep moving.
Until very recently, I never would have imagined myself running these things. I grew up with rather debilitating asthma. I have a vivid memory of sitting down in tears during Physical Ed in third grade, wheezing, unable to finish the quarter mile run I’d been assigned. As I grew older, my asthma symptoms lessened. I started to enjoy short jogs, maybe a mile or two. Sometimes further, but never very fast. And I always had to carry my emergency inhaler. Then, about three years ago, I started talking with a friend at work about running. He convinced me to try a 15k and helped me figure out how to train.
After finishing those nine miles (a distance that was unthinkable to me only a few months before) I signed up for a half marathon and was soon running frequently with a group of long distance runners. Most of these folks liked to run “ultramarathons” which are races longer than 26.2 miles and are usually run on trails instead of pavement. They soon convinced me to try a 35 mile race in the mountains of north Georgia. I survived and was suddenly convinced that even longer distances were possible. And all of that led to a 100 mile race on the Pinhoti trail in northern Alabama. It took me 26 hours and cost me a few toenails but I made it.
The Spiritual Endurance Race
It’s difficult to run this sort of race without thinking of St. Paul’s frequent usage of racing analogies and terminologies. In 1 Corinthians 9 he writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” In Philippians, he says, “In the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.” And the author of Hebrews encourages Christians to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Many commentators have pointed out that the writers of scripture were drawing on Greco-Roman athletics and events like the ancient Olympic games. But, while this is certainly true, no ancient race really necessitated the endurance scripture prescribes. At the Olympic games, the longest race was the dolichos at a measly 3 miles. Difficult to win against other skilled runners, surely, but not exactly a test of endurance.
But St. Paul and the other writers chose their analogy carefully because the spiritual life is certainly an endurance run, not something we train for and then complete in a matter of moments, running as hard as we can and then stopping. Rather, like a 100-mile race, our spiritual life is a long and grueling struggle up mountains and down into valleys, a narrow path strewn with rocks and roots, a race that winds through exhaustion and excitement and that sometimes leaves the runner thinking, “What the heck was I thinking? I don’t want to do this anymore.”
While the spiritual life shares similar challenges with ultramarathons, the two endeavors also require similar strategies and approaches in order for success. I’ve learned plenty of lessons while training for long races ad here are the ones I think are most applicable to the spiritual race as well.
During marathons and shorter races, runners drink water and sports drinks. They might even eat a carbohydrate or energy gel which is basically fancy sugar in a tube. But this won’t cut it for an ultramaraton. You have to consume a lot more calories to replace what you’re losing at that moment and prepare for what you’re going to go through later. And you don’t just need fast-burning carbs but more filling fats as well. Aid stations at ultras are usually stocked with fruit, cookies, potatoes, pretzels, and candy (gummy bears are my personal favorite). At longer races this standard fare grows to include everything from breakfast sandwiches (you’ll probably be running through the morning anyway), pickles, noodle soup, cake, bacon, and a hundred other things that would only sound appetizing to someone who just ran 50 miles and needs to run 50 more.
Running an ultramarathon without fueling simply isn’t possible. And neither is running our spiritual race. Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He was quoting scripture, of course. And so, like Jesus, we must consume the word of God in scripture. We also must regularly consume the Word of God in the Eucharist! What better nourishment could there possibly be than the Body of Christ? The sacraments confer grace like nothing else can and are as necessary to the spiritual life as food and water are to a physical race.
Run with friends
I never would have finished my 100 mile race without friends. In training, having a running buddy meant having someone to encourage me and convince me that it was possible to keep going. Sometimes, they did this by their words and other times it was simply their presence that kept me running. These more experienced runners could also give me tips along the way. And their endurance, strength, and posture was a constant guide. When I’m by myself, deep in the woods, it’s easy to let up a little or just stop to walk. Not so much when there are other runners around.
As a Catholic man, it’s so important that I surround myself with strong and virtuous Catholics. Not just so I can ask “Catholic questions” but so they can encourage me both verbally and simply through their actions. Of course, I not only have my friends and mentors, I also have the “great cloud of witnesses,” all the saints who have gone before me. These holy men and women remind us that extraordinary and virtuous lives are possible in all circumstances. And the saints cheer us on to the finish! They pray for us and keep us company always.
Relentless forward progress
There’s a saying among ultrarunners that all it takes to finish a race is “relentless forward progress.” This is what makes these races so difficult but also so rewarding. Since races are on rocky trails and often go through the night, it’s very common for runners to fall multiple times. And muscle fatigue is pretty much a given for longer runs. Stomach troubles aren’t uncommon either. At one of the most prestigious 100 mile races a few years ago, a runner got off to a terrible start, got sick, threw up on the side of the trail, but recovered and went on to not only finish but win the race! So, finishing a race doesn’t just take strong muscles. It takes mental toughness to get up and press on no matter what. Sometimes, pressing on doesn’t mean running tall and strong. It means pushing through fatigue and pain, sometimes no faster than a crawl. But, as long as it’s forward progress, it counts. You only lose if you give up.
The same is true of our spiritual lives. We are sinful! We fall. But falling down is not the end of our spiritual race. God gave us the wonderful sacrament of reconciliation so we could get back up, restored, rejuvenated, and ready to press on with endurance. Of course, it isn’t just simple mistakes that keep us from running our race well. We grow tired and depressed. We have doubts. We experience all sorts of trials and hardships. And it is during these times that the ultrarunning adage of “relentless forward progress” can serve us well. We have to press on even when we’d rather just take a break. We have to remember our vows and trudge on even when prayer doesn’t come easily, when we’re ashamed of our mistakes, and when we just don’t feel all that joyful. Our progress may be slow but it is this kind of perseverance that will win glory. The vast majority of saints were not born preternaturally good. Rather, they were normal men and women who fell and got up over and over again. But they never stopped. They pressed on in order to win the race!
Daniel Stewart is a Catholic dad in the deep south. He loves running, gardening, and watching Star Wars with his kids. You can follow his adventures at daniel-bearman.com.
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