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Exercise as spiritual play

Ten spiritual lessons that running has taught me.
By Lisa Watts
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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It doesn't happen every day, or just because I want it to. But most days, soon after tying on my shoes and hitting the pavement, I feel the release that comes from relying less on my head and more on my body. The day becomes something to feel and smell, not trudge through. If friends are along, we check in, laugh, offer advice, and compare notes. Hills that looked steep begin to flatten out. Just breathing hard for a while makes the difficult things resolve--or dissolve. Returning home, I feel less complicated, more accepting, more optimistic.

I've been a runner and a Unitarian Universalist most of my adult life. In recent years, the two practices have grown more important to me, taking on their own interdependence. After running dozens of races without worrying much about my times, I ran the 1999 Cleveland Marathon to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon, the runner's holy grail, in 2000. I've run two more marathons with finish times that qualify for Boston since then. The lessons I learned on the road, training for and meeting those goals, have opened up possibilities for the rest of my life. If your goals include learning to get the most out of your life, to fulfill dreams and explore change, exercise can--sometimes literally--set you off on the right foot. Even play can be a spiritual practice.

“In play,” the runner-physician-writer George Sheehan once wrote, “you realize simultaneously the supreme importance and utter insignificance of what you are doing. And you accept the paradox of pursuing what at once is essential and inconsequential.”

When I started running in my twenties, the exercise suited and soothed me. Out on the road, breathing hard, I could burn up my frustrations and sort out my questions. Years have passed, but I keep running. In hectic times, it grounds me. In wary, uncertain times, the miles sometimes point the way to some solution or relief. Here are ten spiritual life lessons that running has taught me.

1. Make play a habit.

Maybe you shy away from discipline as much as I do. I resist packing a lunch for work every day, or setting a weekly schedule for housework. But going for a run is something that I get to do, not have to do. At least six days a week, my friends and I go to great lengths to find time around our kids' carpools and husbands' meetings and our own work in which to run. It sounds serious to call it exercise; really it's a treat.

Never mind how exercise strengthens your heart, lungs, and muscles. Like the relief that kids get from recess, an hour on the road lightens the tone for the rest of the day.

2. Set some goals.

The wonderful thing about sports is that you've always got room to grow. I give myself direction by setting goals: how many days a week I'll exercise, how many miles I'll cover, how fast I hope to run a race. I stretch myself by training for harder goals.

It's the same in the rest of our lives. We can just get by, or we can push ourselves. Exercise teaches us that we only get out of something as much as we put in. I can't run twenty-six miles well just because I want to; I have to train for it.

3. Do it with friends.

Most days, the promise of sharing a run with someone else is what gets me out the door. It's much like my UU fellowship: We are each on our own journeys, but we take comfort in gathering to compare notes, find common ground, and encourage each other.

Everywhere I've lived, I've been blessed with running partners. In Mystic, Connecticut, Ellen drove to our house every Sunday morning to run a six-mile loop with me along the Mystic River. Back at the house, she would stay for coffee, chat with my husband, play with my toddlers. We all looked forward to this weekly ritual.

When we moved to the small town of Wooster, Ohio, I left nothing to chance. I asked at the Y and was matched up with Pam and Patrice, an ultramarathoner and an ultraswimmer. We run together daily, often training for longer races, and we share the tiniest details of our lives with each other. When one of us is leaving town for a few days, we say goodbye by figuring out when we'll run together next. I wish I did that in all of my friendships.

4. Appreciate your body.

We live in a land of plenty where it's easy to overeat, subsist on junk, even abuse substances. We worry about gaining weight and not eating right.

Exercising, especially training for a goal, reminds me to look at food as something my body needs in order to work better, not just something to satisfy my hunger or stave off boredom. It's a whole different approach to taking care of myself. Learning to treat myself like an athlete teaches me to respect the things my body can do rather than focus on its weaknesses. Learning to nourish, not just feed, spills over into my emotional life, making me a better parent and spouse.

5. Don't sweat the setbacks.

Sports, like life, always present dips. On most long runs, a time will come when my stomach roils or my head feels cloudy or my legs tire. But when I bear with them a bit, keep breathing, I usually can turn off the anxious voice that says, “Maybe you shouldn't be doing this.” Not every run is joyful, especially the long ones when we're training for a marathon. On a Saturday morning in wind and sleet and ice, it's just what I do, what I've said I would do. Sometimes the best part is being able to finish.

6. Remember to rest.

I kept a running logbook one winter as three of us trained for the Nashville marathon. In early March the printed text reminded me to rest, because time off is what makes you stronger. It is the recovery process during which your heart and muscles build new fibers.

I like that image: the idea that a day off here and there, a break from our routines, isn't slothful but purposeful--to help us rebuild.

7. Worship your heroes.

My son has always revered professional athletes. He has cut out their pictures, memorized their stats, hoped to wear clothing with their number or name; he's every merchandiser's dream. But I respect the way Tommy studies how these athletes move, then runs outside and immediately works their moves into his own play.

Heroes are useful at every age. I don't wear anyone's jersey, but over the years I've collected a small stash of writers, runners, even ministers I admire. They inspire me by reminding me of the possibilities, of what I aspire to achieve, accomplish, become.

8. Give up some control.

At a UU district summer conference last year, I heard about the myth of competency, an affliction that Baby Boomers suffer in great numbers. It's the notion that with just one more graduate degree, one more skill, one more electronic device, we will have our lives in complete control. But we never do, and we never will.

For some people, exercise feeds that myth of competency. But when I go out in inclement weather or race my hardest and still have a bad day, I remember how small I am in the scheme of things and how little control I have over weather patterns and other circumstances. Does this imply the existence of a higher power? That's a question best left to ponder on the road, for years to come.

9. Remember gratitude.

The best part about running is that it takes me outside, day after day, through the course of a northern Ohio year. I whine freely about all the gray days, as well as the windy and rainy and humid ones. Then a morning comes along when sunlight dances off icy tree branches or new spring buds. Such sights always thrill me. Perhaps gray days serve the purpose of never letting us take sunshine for granted.

Once you start thinking this way, you can keep going. Look, I think sometimes, we're free to be outside running while everyone else is stuck inside watching TV. We would never have seen that deer dash through the woods or those fireball sunrises if we hadn't been up, out, and on the road.

It's easier to moan about all that doesn't go well. I do enough of that in every sphere of my life. But it doesn't get me anywhere, just more stuck, until I pick my head up to see things differently.

10. Enjoy the journey.

This is the lesson I have to learn over and over again. It is the most important lesson exercise can teach. I tend to focus too far ahead: on the end of the race, on the next milestone for my kids, on getting the next project done at work. Running teaches us quite literally that the only way to get from one point to the next is by taking step after step. If I concentrate only on the goal, on how many miles it is to the finish, or to the next corner, I often get discouraged, lose faith, and think about quitting. When I remember what I am doing at that moment--that I am free to be outside, using my body, laughing, or solving a problem with friends--the time passes all too quickly. Like our lives, each step is a gift.

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