When I first ventured to the US back in 2007 to take up an athletic scholarship, there were a number of cultural peculiarities foreign to this skinny little runner from Melbourne. The first was the prominence of tattoos. Everyone had them – all my teammates, and all the kids around the university. Not surprising, seven years later, tattoos are not so peculiar anymore in Australia, as trends and behaviours traverse the rapidly shrinking barriers between different cultures and different lands. However, there was another rather confronting peculiarity among my many teammates and among the competitors I came across: a far more prominent and public declaration of religious faith. Teammates had bible verses tattooed across their chests, or on their arms. Facebook might better have been called Prayerbook at times. Conversations about running were punctuated with religious convictions – “Running is a gift from God”. “I’ll be praying for you to have a good race, Dave.” Of course, the pride and conviction with which faith was held and shared didn’t offend me – I’m not easily offended, and I attended a catholic boys school after all. But coming from a country and culture where the Aussie exterior tends to have been hardened by the heritage of an unforgiving land, and where such public declarations of faith outside of the confines of a church are almost queer – particularly among people my age – questions brewed, and I pondered faith in my own life. Why do I run? Why do we run?
I have known far more runners for whom a religious faith-construct plays no role in their running, than runners for whom it does. For many, running is fun and games; a way to stay in shape; an escape from the daily grind; a social intervention; or even a way to pay the bills. These are the runners that have always inspired me, and who drew me so deeply into the sport. But as I met more and more runners for whom their was a spiritual bond between their running and their faith, the perpetual optimist in me shunned away the judgemental voice in the back of my head. I wasn’t really interested in their religious convictions – perhaps because I am not religious myself. What I was interested in and inspired by was their capacity to use their faith to find meaning in their running, and in turn use their running to build something greater. Faith after all is the unadulterated acceptance that there is no certainty in life. It takes courage to have faith. Religion is just one of a host of constructs within which faith can grow. Far be it from me or anyone else to judge someone for the religion they put their faith in. And really, what better metaphor for running is there than faith – to courageously embrace all that is uncertain. Running can certainly be an endeavour of uncertainty…will I make to the finish line? Will my body withstand the torture? For these runners, the question of “why do you run?” held a different meaning, and as a lover of the sport, I was intrigued by it.
At the recent Chicago marathon, a documentary calledTranscend was released. It profiles the life of Kenyan runner and politician, Wesley Korir (pictured left…a rare occasion that I would finish in front of him!). Like many Kenyan runners, Wesley ran to escape poverty. He had suffered many hardships that people accustomed to western luxuries couldn’t imagine. He saw his time competing in college in the US as “just a piece of the puzzle”. A way to “get through school”. But with the eruption of violence during the Kenyan national election at the end of 2007, Wesley’s perspective on life soon changed. He reflected on his life, on his running, and the country he had come from, and “when that awakening came to me, when I connected my spirituality with my running, I changed.” From the days of beating his cousins in the race home from school, Wesley found self value through running. He had a talent for it, and that talent paved the way to a scholarship to an American university, to financial stability, and it paved the way for him to have a voice in his community. Driven by the nobel virtues instilled in him through his religious faith, and the spiritual strength he built through his running, Wesley came to use his running as a platform from which to make a positive difference in the lives of his family, a difference in his home community of Cherangany, and a difference in Kenya. As he ran and trained, his spiritual faith grew, and his courage and determination to run fast, and to help serve his country grew too.
Not everyone who is religious use their beliefs to wage war or insight discrimination. People like Wesley Korir use it to inspire their training, and then use that platform to make a difference. So too does Ryan Hall through his Steps Foundation, which fights poverty through projects that help build and inspire better health. Of course, not everyone who uses their running as a platform to make a positive difference in the world is religious. So why do we all run? What does religion have to do with it? Wesley’s faith driven running is one example of why we all run. Whether clean-skinned or tattooed, whether religious or atheist, whether you’re the weekend warrior or the next Olympic gold medalist: we all run to become better versions of ourselves. Whether we use running as a platform to have a voice, or whether we fit a run in before work, we the runners, at one point or another experience that transcendent moment; “when your conscious self is overwhelmed by your physical activity.” (Malcolm Gladwell, Transcend) “When you go to another place.” (Alex Hutchinson, Transcend) Often, that other place is a better you.