running is spiritual

My friend Scott is a kayaker.  He’s recently written a book, Holy Whitewater, about the spirituality of kayaking and it’s good that he has.  There is something hugely spiritual about paddling down a river through amazing scenery, steering a course and using the current.

But… I don’t like kayaking.  I don’t care how spiritual it is.  It scares me.  I hate the feeling of my legs trapped inside a kayak.  I hate being bounced about by white water.

It’s good then that kayaking isn’t the only sport that evokes a spiritual response.  People often talk of surfing and sailing as spiritual sports.  I’d like to add running to the list.

I feel better when I run.  It helps my mood, it makes me feel physically better (apart from when my toes hurt!) and it gets me out into the world, away from my desk.

I hadn’t really been expecting running to meet any kind of spiritual need.  That’s odd because I believe that life is spiritual, that God is in everything, so why wouldn’t running be a something that feeds the soul?

The long road to the marathon is a good way to help explain what I mean.

Every experience adds to who we are and it’s always worth reflecting on how something shows us about the world and ourselves.

If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.

Emil Zatopec

Some things take a long time, and that’s good.

My parents quote a proverb: Patience is a virtue, poses it if you can.  You’ll find it in a woman, but never in a man.

I’m sure that’s rubbish, but I’ve never bothered waiting long enough to find out… until now.

My training programme lasted 20 weeks but I actually first signed up to run a marathon in April 2011.

I watched the 2011 London Marathon and was inspired.  I thought ‘I’ve always wanted to do that!’ so I entered the ballot.  There was no real chance of me getting a place for 2012 but you don’t find out until October (I have NO idea why it takes so long to tell people if they have a place).   I decided that I should start training just in case.  A half marathon in September would be an ideal stepping stone.

So, I trained for and ran the Great Scottish Run half marathon in Glasgow at the start of September 2011 and for reasons which escape me while lying on the couch still unable to move I decided that running twice as far would be a great idea, whether I got into London or not.

The ‘red fleece of rejection’ from the London Marathon popped through the door in October and I decided that I was going to run one anyway.  The rejection magazine comes with a guaranteed entry to Edinburgh.  I registered that day.

Preparation is everything for a marathon.  My training programme for the 26.2 miles was in reality was 1 year.

You have to allow your body to change and adapt.  Training is actually about breaking down your muscles and allowing them to grow back in different ways to make them more suited to the punishment of running for a long time.

You can’t rush that kind of change.  It comes in tiny increments.  It comes one session at a time, one rest day at a time, one breakthrough and one setback at a time.


Running four of five times a week changes your life

It’s a pretty obvious statement but one which I know I didn’t take seriously.  Going from no running to running almost everyday means rethinking your day, your week, your life.  Fitting it in at the start is hard.  It’s a chore.  It’s difficult.

That changes.

Soon running becomes the thing that everything else has to fit around.  You wake up and think ‘I have to run today.’

My shortest run was 5k which takes somewhere between 23 minutes and 35 minutes depending on pace.  At the quick end there isn’t much thought going on about anything other than holding form and trying to breathe.  At the slow end there is very little thought about the process of running and lots of time to think about lots of other things.

As the miles rack up so thinking time gets more plentiful.  Towards the end of marathon training I was running for 3 hours.  You can’t think about running for all of that time.  Your mind wanders… then focuses… then wanders… then focuses.

As you run you become very aware of yourself and your surroundings.  You notice how you feel.

That carries over into other things.  Concentrating is easier.  My mood is better.  I have more confidence in what I can achieve.


It hurts.  But that’s mostly ok.

I’ve never met a marathon runner who said their run didn’t hurt.  There are lots of sayings about marathons.  The one I found most true is that you run the first 20 miles with your legs and the last 6.2 miles with your head.  There is a point where your head is screaming at you to stop.  My point came between 15-18 miles, and from reading other people’s race thoughts I wasn’t alone.  That point is the furthest point on the out and back course.  You can see a stream of runners running off into the distance round the bay.  It looks like miles.  On the other side of the road you are being passed by faster runners heading for home.  They are in that last 6 miles and the pain is written all over their faces.

Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.

Lance Armstrong

You could stop.  It’s ok to stop.  There is never any shame in stepping off in a marathon.  Each run is as different as the runner.  Some days it just doesn’t go well and stopping is the best thing to do.

The decision is always about working out if the voice shouting ‘stop!’ in your head is real.  If everyone stopped when it started to hurt then no one would ever finish.

In a world where things are easy, where stuff is available and where ‘pleasure’ can be purchased in a variety of formats there is something deeply satisfying about completing something hard.


The only race is with yourself, but it’s run with other people

The marathon is a journey not a race.  That sounds glib but it’s true.

Someone wins.  The other people are only in a race with themselves.  Something strange happens in a marathon.  There is very little competition between runners.  It’s just not about that.  In fact it’s the very opposite of that.  People look out for each other, encourage people who are struggling, look out for their friends and stop to help those who are struggling.

Throughout my training I ran mostly alone.  My long runs were torture.  It was cold and wet.  I felt shattered and sore.  It makes a huge difference to run with others.  My best runs were on Saturday mornings at Strathclyde parkrun or with my friends Anthony and Kenny.  The speed wasn’t different, the quality of the run was just the same but having company makes the world of difference.

Some journeys are better with company.  Life is one of them.


Support matters, a lot

I can’t imagine how people run a marathon without support through their training.

I spent most of January being unable to stand up straight or walk very far, never mind run.  My family got me through that time.

On the Marathon the crowds of people were amazing.  It made such a huge difference to have even one person standing by the side of the road shouting encouragement.  I’m sure they don’t know what an impact they make.

The people who come along and put themselves out for hours to cheer as their friend runs past make such a difference.  Avril and Pam cheered David and I near the start and we didn’t see them again until the end but that few seconds where someone you know is saying ‘you can do this.  I believe in you.’ is priceless.

Hanging around to encourage people you don’t even know because you recognise the size of the task they are tackling is an act of community, of being a neighbour.  People gave me sweets and water.  They sprayed water on me with their garden hoses.  They clapped and cheered and shouted encouragement.  They were generous.

I ran the last 9 miles with a guy called Liam who I didn’t know and will probably never see again but we shared that journey and I’ll always be grateful to him for his friendship and support.  When I look back I will forget the pain and the effort but I will remember the people.


People are amazing

I ran next to a young soldier for a while.  I was running at my pace.  He was running at my pace too.  I was dressed in the the lightest t-shirt I own, shorts, a lightweight cap and carrying a water bottle.  He was wearing his combat trousers, boots and carrying a full 40kg pack.  I was delighted to watch him finish.

I saw a guy dressed in a massive bear suit, like a sports mascot.  It was 25c.

I saw ordinary people doing something amazing.

People were running for others and for themselves.  To raise money for charity, to honour the memory of a loved one or to prove that they can go beyond what they thought they were capable of.

That involves risk.

Running a marathon is bad for you.  It is basically inflicting trauma on your body.  It hurts because your body starts to use itself as fuel.  The challenge is to know that and do it anyway.


So how is that spiritual?

Meaning and purpose.  Those are the words that point to spirituality.  What gives you meaning and purpose?

Running a marathon gives you both, but it goes beyond the miles and the race.  You can get caught up in the running but for most people I’ve spoken to the running is part of something more.  It is about community, shared experience, health, being outside, stress relief and challenge.  Those are spiritual things.  Those are things that feed the soul.