A Recovery Run: Good Friday and Easter Sunday

When I look back at my involvement in running I’ve come to the conclusion that in life, more things have to do with running than do not.  In running, I have found a good teacher, a good friend, a mentor, an honest critic and a benevolent judge.

In running I have also found a great symbol and guide for life.  In my running I have found out what my strengths are; what my gifts are and what my abilities are.  I have found the things that motivate me and inspire me to push beyond what I thought was possible.  At the same time running has humbled me.  Running has shown me what my weaknesses are, what limits me; what holds me back and what makes me quit.

There are no short cuts in running.  No one accidently has a great marathon.  No one lucks into winning a state championship in cross-country.   Running a great marathon is the result of time, effort, discipline, sacrifice and many miles.  Winning a state championship only happens when a runner combines talent and a willingness to tolerate more pain and discomfort than their opponent.    Being successful in running is only the result of doing things you don’t always want to do and it also means not doing the things you sometimes want to do.  Running shows you how committed you are to your goals; what’s important; and what isn’t.  Running means getting up for a long run on a cold windy Saturday morning while going home early the previous Friday night when all your friends begged you to stay out.

Running will demonstrate a person’s love, passion, creativity, childlike joy and a person’s overall honesty with themselves and others.  At the same time it reveals our apathy, our lack of fortitude, how easily we are talked out of things and our laziness.  Runners are not motivated for very long by the desires of others, but only what captivates their own heart in the long run.  Running teaches you how easily you are influenced and how well we listen.

As a priest, and more once a runner than a current runner, I have found that running is innately wrapped up in spirituality and faith. I can’t imagine there is any escaping it.  I think even the most hardened atheist who takes up running cannot dismiss the idea that their running isn’t infinitely tied up in whatever spirituality they may or may not care to admit.

For me running symbolizes so perfectly the many paradigms and themes put forward not just in the Christian faith, but also in all religions and belief systems.  Running it seems, parallels so many of the major themes embraced by religion and the beliefs of all people.  I am struggling to imagine any person of any reasonable and lasting faith system that are not also committed and invested in the same principles that are true for running, such as delayed gratification or how sacrifice leads to reward how ever it is defined.

In Christianity the central theme of the paschal mystery or the passion death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not limited to just Christ himself, but is a paradigm and theme available for every single person.  Everyone faces his or her own cross in life, sometimes our cross is very small and sometimes very large.  We all find ourselves hanging there; up on our cross during the many Good Fridays we endure throughout our lives.  Consequently, we have all experienced the immense joys and victories of resurrection.  We have all had our Easter Sunday moments, when we have been rewarded or have been raised up.  These are small and large versions of Easter Sunday, but they are what give us hope and what we point to and look forward to when we feel we are enduring our Good Fridays.  “It ain’t Easter Sunday yet, but it’s comin,’” is the way an African American Catholic deacon expressed it to me when I visited his parish on the near west side of Chicago during my seminary days.

No runner experiences total pleasure in his or her running.  There are always hills, injury, pain, and exhaustion.  The thing that keeps runners engaged in running is the exhilaration, the sense of accomplishment, the great feeling of awareness and satisfaction and, the great and personal accomplishments and victories.  Runners embrace the idea that “running is life and life is running. Will Freeman the men’s track and cross-country coach at Grinnell College in Iowa likes to say, “We were made to run. It’s in our genes.”  Bruce Springsteen, “The Boss” agrees, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

I can think of plenty of Good Friday runs in my life, when running was so painful and difficult that I felt like I was literally carrying a cross while I ran and felt like quitting.  I am thinking right now of a time when I was running a race in Narragansett, Rhode Island.  It was “The Blessing of the Fleet Ten Miler” through the town and along the coastal hills.  Narragansett is the hometown of Ellison Myers Brown or as he was known in running circles “Tarzan Brown.”  Tarzan, a native Narragansett Indian was the winner of the 1936 and 1939 Boston Marathon.  It was in fact due to an epic Boston Marathon battle between Tarzan and local Boston legend Johnny Kelly in 1936 that inspired then Boston Globe reporter, Jerry Nason to name the last hill in Newton  as “Heartbreak Hill.”  Tarzan led Kelly on the down hill portion of the hills while Kelly pressed and led on the up hills.  Kelly’s last attempt to break Tarzan up that last hill proved to be his demise and propelled Tarzan into Boston Marathon lore.  Meanwhile Johnny Kelly will forever be connected to that historical hill which cruelly symbolized his epic defeat. Running is brutally honest and sometimes heartbreaking.

I wasn’t caring too much about Tarzan Brown at the 8-mile mark of his hometown race that I was running some 70 years later. As a matter of fact I began to hate his town, his race and I was beginning to dislike Tarzan himself.  I didn’t care about his heroic defeat of Johnny Kelly in the hills of Newton because I thought his race, this race “sucked.”

The first five miles of the race were relatively easy, but the second half proved to be very challenging with climb after climb up hill after hill.  I felt as though I was either in Gethsemane or Calvary or both as I drug myself up yet another hill.  At around mile seven I asked another runner toward the top of yet another long painful climb, “How many more of these are there?” I asked.  He told me, “Oh this is the last one.”  Liar! He lied to me, as there were in fact many more hills equally as painful.  I had about had it and wanted to quit, but I didn’t.  I didn’t allow myself to quit and I trudged on finally finishing.  I don’t know why I kept running when I clearly was having a terrible run and hating every second of it.  Was it pride, self-discipline, integrity or something else? I’m not sure, but my ability to press on isn’t always something I have been able to draw on consistantly during those Good Friday moments.  It seems that that courage and strength to endure is sometimes fleeting.

The post race party was awesome.  Since the race didn’t start until 6pm on a Saturday night the post race activities took place in the midst of a beautiful New England summer’s evening.  There was a barbeque, music and it seemed as though the whole town came out to witness it all including a wonderfully New England sunset as a backdrop.  Had I not finished that race I would have been mad and wanted to leave right away missing all of the post race activities.  Instead, because of willing myself to endure the pain, discomfort and the disappointing time, I finished and was able to enjoy a post race party in Tarzan Brown’s hometown and a race and party that I will never forget.

Good Friday leads to Easter Sunday. This paradigm occurs in many forms in life.  Cleaning your room so you can go out and play.  Enduring the hard work of school in order to get the degree.  Getting a degree so you get a good job doing what you want.  Putting up with the dentist ‘s picking and drilling so you can have a pretty and healthy smile.  Sacrifice leads to reward.

For people of faith the paradigm of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is what propels Christians forward.  Enduring life’s pain, suffering and even death, Christians are forever hopeful of the bright promise of immortality of life everlasting in heaven.  Once you recognize the existence of this Good Friday Easter Sunday theme in life and indeed the world, you begin to see it everywhere.  Whether it’s in school, business, our social circles, our families, our personal development, certainly our faith, you realize it is unavoidable.  Once you embrace and accept this concept as the way things are and the way things go in life, it can offer you incredible hope, confidence and even joy in the midst of life especially in the times of suffering, loss and pain.

Running symbolizes this I believe, better than anything.  The sacrifice/reward theme may be an idea that is fairly obvious to most people, however when you frame it in the context of Christianity and faith it can change a runner’s outlook, change their life, deepen their faith and transform running from a purely healthy and fun thing to do to a deep, profound, faith filled prayer and mystical experience.

My personal journey with running started back in 7th grade when I went out for our grade school track team. Up until then, running was not on my radar as a young boy growing up on the south side of Des Moines, Iowa. Since then I have discovered and learned all the great qualities of running, as a semi-successful runner and marathoner to a semi-successful coach. And while as I write this I’m not able to run as I used to or I would like to, I am still forever connected with the idea and philosophy of running not so much with myself these days, but within the running of others in my desire to inspire young people to experience and perhaps love this great philosophy and great teacher of life. Those who dare to enter the great classroom of running will learn many more things about life, about themselves and about others than they could ever possibly learn anywhere else.

My intentions in writing these lines is merely to express and described all the great life lessons I’ve learned from running, not just my own but by being involved with the running of others in which I have been connected to in my life. It is also an attempt to share some the life changing moments and experiences I’ve been privileged to be a part of all due to running.   I hope that by reading these words you might be inspired to value the great classroom of running and to consider and perhaps even embrace the great life lessons that running has to offer.

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