I am currently a fiercely competitive and nationally ranked triathlete (81 in my age group as of last night). Of all the things that has happened to me as an adult, this is the one that has turned out to be most surprising. It was never one of those things that I had on any list. But it has turned out to be one of my primary ways to feel God's presence in my life. It brings me a deep sense of peace and well-being, makes me feel connected to the earth and to other people, and takes me outside of myself in a way that makes life more comprehensible when I get back to it.
I hated running when I was in elementary school and junior high. I'm not sure I can express how much I loathed the idea of running or in particular the dreaded mile run that we had to do every year. I felt torporously fat and ridiculously slow. At best I could run for one lap and then was reduced to that embarrassing, jiggling waddle that is an attempt to convince the gym teacher that you aren't just giving up. In high school, I joined the swim team specifically so I didn't ever have to ever go to a gym class or do the mile run. I wasn't any good at swimming, and you'd think I'd have been more self-conscious about my body in a swim suit, but I wasn't. I was a happy and mediocre swimmer for three years until I graduated from high school, went to college and could make my own choices in fitness.
I married young and from age 24 to 32 had five children. I did a minimum amount of exercise then, returning to the swimming pool because when pregnant, it made me feel the weight less. When I was done with having children, I signed up with a trainer at a local gym. In short order, I had lost a lot of body fat, looked very different, and felt like I could take on the world. That was when I did my first triathlon race, got first place in my age group and realized I might actually be good at something that was about the physicality of my body, a possibility that had truly never occurred to me before. I had grown up in a family of the geekiest of geeks. Our idea of exercise was carrying the box of books we'd checked out of the library up to the car every week before we got a new set and carried them down the stairs.
Suddenly, I was someone who found pleasure in working hard, in the drip of sweat as it cascaded over my face and down my elbows to my fingertips. I became one of those boring people who talked about races ALL THE TIME, if you let me. I'd tell you all the things I had done wrong, my goals for the coming year, my A race, my B races, the races I was doing with my husband and kids, and on and on. It might sound trivial to a casual observer, but racing had become my salvation. It had become my way of really praying to God, feeling His hand in my life, and worshiping Him and His creations. Running was my way of offering gratitude for the world and for my own body, my life, and the life of my children. It was also my way of weeping, of expressing anger at the death of my youngest child, and my way of showing my faith that life would go on and that I would go on and learn to conquer this most unconquerable of trials.
Some people talk about a "running high" that they only get sometimes, but what I crave I get every time. It happens when I'm on the treadmill or out viewing the most gorgeous scenery that is available in Utah, on Antelope Island or in Zion National Park. What I feel is this sense of connection to my body. As a writer who sits on a computer and types away in imaginary worlds, having conversations with imaginary people, it would be an understatement to say that most of the time, I am not in touch with my body. But when I run, I can't help but feel every step, every jolt, every pain. And that is a glorious thing. It's not pleasure, but a sense of being alive.
Running makes me pay more attention to what was already going on around me in the first place. I won't say that it feels like time stops because it doesn't. But it feels like time runs differently. It feels like the rest of the world fades away. It feels like my responsibilities slough off of me, like I become just me, instead of mom, writer, organizer, teacher, and so on. I feel like this is seeing myself the way that God must see me, just me in my naked state. And yes, it is scary to see myself that way, with all my flaws and warts and the way that you hit a certain point during the marathon of an Ironman and realize that you are nothing, that you may not be able to take another step. It feels real to me.
Running is where I feel God because running is where I find myself. It is also where I break down and can't go any farther and need help most desperately. It's where I focus on my own body and the reality of mortality, that I'm going to live in this world for a little while, and if I want to really live, I'm going to take risks and sometimes fail. Running is where I really see how much the same I am as other people, whatever they do in their day job. I see them as fellow runners, and in that sense, as brothers and sisters and blessed in our joint endeavors.
When I run, I feel joyful because I welcome the pain and grit my teeth and accept what is to come instead of trying to think my way out of it. I think all of those things are part of living a faith-filled life, and that is why I am always going to think of my athletic life as the best church I will ever attend and of other runners as worshippers of the same God, in the same faith, in the biggest church building in the world.