For Some Joggers, Running Nurtures Body and Soul

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Like many runners, the Rev. Charles P. Henderson of New York City runs to shed pounds and stay fit. He isn’t trying to set any records.

Josh McDougal, on the other hand, is one of the fastest collegiate distance runners in the nation. A junior at Liberty University, McDougal broke four minutes in the mile this year and will contend for national titles in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Sacramento June 6-9.

While driven by different goals, the two share a bond in their running: They say it’s a way to glorify God.

“I have a type of portable sanctuary,” said Henderson, a 66-year-old Presbyterian minister who began running six years ago at his wife’s urging. Through running, Henderson found much more than exercise.

“Knowing there’s a double benefit _ spiritual and physical _ gives me a sense of well-being and that’s all part of it.”

McDougal, who chose Liberty over many Division 1 powerhouses so he could run with like-minded teammates at a Christian university, said he enjoys the parallels between his running and his faith.

“St. Paul talks about faith as running a race,” McDougal said. “I find when I’m more focused on the spiritual side of things and how I’m living for him (Jesus), I’m ready to perform at a bigger level.”

They aren’t alone. There are many spiritual runners _ people fast and slow, young and old _ who couple the physical exhilaration of a distance run with the cleansing practice of prayer or meditation.

It is exciting news for Warren Kay, who teaches a one-of-a-kind class called “The Spirituality of Running” at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. Kay first noticed the links between running, prayer and spirituality while competing for Villanova University in the 1970s as a middle distance specialist.

A Baptist, Kay said he was intrigued when he saw his Catholic teammates crossing themselves before practice or a race.

“I wasn’t just going to adopt that, but I envied that part of their running,” said Kay. “Now I encourage people to develop their own rituals _ that’s an important part of religion too.”

Kay finds that his students, who are required to be “serious runners,” most often discover the spiritual side of the sport in times of need.

“I often find people get frustrated and then go for a run to be in the presence of God, asking for comfort,” said Kay, author of the upcoming book, “Running _ The Sacred Art.”

The Rev. Roger Joslin, an Episcopal priest in Bentonville, Ark., and author of “Running the Spiritual Path,” says there’s more to running than just sore knees and snazzy shoes. Joslin says the sport can significantly improve a runner’s spiritual life.

“It has formed me,” said Joslin of his combining running with prayer and meditation. “It’s part of who I am.”

Joslin calls running “a moving meditation.” He coaches runners to tune into their bodies and surroundings as a way to focus on something larger.

“A running meditation offers people with busy lives an opportunity to use running not just as a means of physical fitness or to enjoy the nice weather or nature, but to use that time to connect with the divine,” Joslin said.

“It’s doing two things at once _ it’s utilizing that time fully and to its highest purpose.”

Still, there’s no getting around it: Running is a difficult sport, both physically and mentally. It can also get downright boring, said Edmund Burke, a veteran of dozens of marathons.

But when the pace becomes fast and the body aches for rest, Burke said he becomes even more spiritually aware.

“Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through,” Burke said of prayer on the run. “Sometimes I offer up my pain or worries while I’m running and say, `God, you gave me this talent, and I’m trying to honor you by using it, but would you help a brother out here!?”’

And just as marathons require months of sometimes grueling training, it also takes work to become an amateur runner. First, says Joslin, don’t try to distract yourself from the task of running.

“It’s not a magical thing,” he said. “I pay attention to my breath and feel the ground beneath my feet and become aware of the wind through my hair and the sunlight and shade through the trees.”

A lot of runners train with iPods or headphones. Joslin said music can be a good thing _ just as long as it doesn’t numb the mind.

“If it’s done as a distraction _ to take you away from the present _ then it’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “Your run might be the only time you can avoid distraction and just be outside.”

Before every race, Kevin Tschirhart, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, settles himself down with a 30-second prayer _ usually a Hail Mary or two. But during his daily training, he doesn’t pray in an explicit way. Rather, he says the whole act of running, for him, is spiritual, kind of a runner’s high meets spiritual high.

“It’s just you, yourself and your emotions,” Tschirhart said. “If you’re happy, you’re running; if you’re upset, you still get out for a run.”

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Kay, of Merrimack University, talks about an atheistic spirituality that can be fostered through the physical experience of the outdoors. Just by being outside, Kay said, runners encounter serene moments that otherwise would be lost to busy days.

Julia Rudd, who was an All-American harrier at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, consistently uses her running to have a quiet conversation with God.

“When you are alone, instead of letting your mind completely wander, or think about how you are getting bored, use the time to reflect on your spiritual life,” she said. “It’s a chance to be alone _ a perfect time to talk to God like a friend.”

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The Most Rev. Thomas Paprocki, an auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop in Chicago, has been running marathons since 1995. People have fitness goals _ they want to look good, stay healthy and feel fit _ but how much time is spent thinking about spiritual goals, he asked.

For him, the two go hand in hand.

“Take care of your body,” he said, “take care of your soul.”

KRE/RB END TURNER1,050 words, with optional trim to 950

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Photos of McDougal, Kay, Tschirhart, and Rudd are available via https://religionnews.com

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