Ask any random person what they think of running and their answer is almost always “it’s painful and too much work.” Running, though, is something much more than that.
I have to admit that running is not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about a spiritual experience. If you are looking for something soulful, chances are you are walking into a church, visiting a spiritual person, holding a newborn baby, or in quiet contemplation. Yes, running can be hard and painful. When I run, my feet and knees complain and it is sometimes more work than joy. There is also the weather, the hills, the bugs, and the occasional accident or injury. But, despite all of those drawbacks I still run and I run because running is more than a simple exercise and it is more than just a way to stay in shape.
I put my feet to the floor and the creakiness of middle-aged bones greets me. I do the mental algebra: the bed is soft and warm, but the ground is hard and cold, I was comfortable where I was and now I’m uncomfortable… Logic would have me stay in bed, but running is not about logic. Something is drawing me outside.
The question of why I run is a question I ask myself all the time. At times, running seems absurd and I wonder why I would do something so crazy to myself. Some of my friends say I’m addicted to running and they think of it just like any other addition. I agree that running may be an addiction, but what I’m addicted to is not some drug my brain produces but what running gives me. Running connects me to spirit in a way that nothing else I do does. It taps something deep inside me that is by its very essence a spiritual and that connection to spirit is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
After a trip to the bathroom and the kitchen to get some water, I check the temperature outside. Do I have the right clothes for the weather? I decide I’m okay and I take my shoes outside and sit on the front porch. The sky is just beginning to blue. The occasional sound of birds fills the morning air and except for a few cars in the distance it is pretty quite. The bustle of the day seems a long way off. I put on my shoes, stretch a bit, and start off toward my trail.
There are those who would claim that spiritual experiences can be found anywhere and I think this can be true. You expect a spiritual experience when entering a church, but you could also claim that washing dishes, driving your car, being on a yoga mat, and even picking up dog poop is a chance to engage your spirit. This might be true, but I have a tough time finding spirit in everything. Maybe someday I will be enlightened enough to find my soul when taking out the trash, but right now my best bet is a dirt road and a good pair of running shoes.
There is something about running that sets it apart from everything else that is called spiritual; in fact, running may be the most spiritual thing I know.
When I first hit the trail I feel jerky, almost robotic, but soon I warm up and I feel in sync with my body and my surroundings. My heart beat, my feet hitting the ground, my breathing all fall into a cadence. The rhythm is not coming from outside me like when I hear music, when I run, I’m the rhythm, I’m the pounding, I’m the drum.
It’s this rhythm that pushes running from an exercise to something else. Certain music and chants share that exact rhythm. When my running switches from erratic to smooth, I am bathed in a rhythm that transports me from the earth and earthy concerns. I find that I have a hard time relating to people when I’m in that zone and that it takes effort to say hello to someone passing in the opposite direction. I’m in a trance. This is my connection to spirit. I still think about my work, family, money and other concerns, but they just bubble up in my conscious and then float away.
Why do I run? I run because it is running that helps me feel the most human, the most connected to spirit. Is running spiritual? Ultimately that is a question for each of us to decide.
My run takes me a few miles out and back. Today was a good day. Now, back at home, I take off my shoes and walk inside. Everything is different.
Running as a Journey to Self
That something, Olson suggests, is our soul.
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