Each winter for the past six years, I’ve begun a season of marathon training. Sometimes injury or illness has meant that, come spring, I don’t even make it to the starting line of the race. But the experience of training is always good. And it’s always hard—both physically and spiritually.
My relationship with marathon training is complex. I like being in good shape, but I often feel more tired than physically fizzing. I’m not what I’d call a natural athlete, and all that running can be draining. I’m also injury-prone; it’s ironic that taking care of myself can actually damage my body rather than strengthen it.
Training’s effect on my mind is more telling, however. I’ve found exercise necessary throughout the winter. Short days and a lack of sun have a disturbingly profound impact on my emotional well-being, and physical exercise—being outside, even in the wintery dark—is vital to combat the melancholy that can at times be overwhelming.
Most importantly, running is a spiritual discipline that keeps both mind and spirit alert. I have a responsibility to lead not only myself but also my family and the church I pastor. Running is part of the way I do that. Often—so often—I hear God’s voice as I exercise. With each thud of my shoes on the pavement, the way through on a knotty pastoral issue becomes clear, or the sermon point I haven’t been able to phrase correctly comes into sharp focus.
Sometimes I can feel guilty about the time I spend running and the energy—emotional and physical—I invest in it. In the last few years, I’ve come to see this as a false guilt, one which confuses something that should be simple. For me, running isn’t a distraction but a form of communion and should therefore be welcomed and valued. Like learning to pray, being able to run takes time and discipline. It takes years to reach a point of fitness sufficient to allow meditative, rather than agonized, running. It’s not an investment everyone will want to make, but it’s allowed me to experience the Lord in ways I would never have achieved had I not laced up my shoes.
When a friend I’ve made on the road comes to church for the first time, it reminds me that I’m doing more than just putting one foot in front of another.
In addition to its spiritual benefits, running plays an important social function for me. I often train with friends who do not know Jesus. So running keeps me plugged into a wider community and gives me a harvest field to work. When a friend I’ve made on the road comes to church for the first time, the time spent exercising doesn’t feel self-indulgent. It reminds me that I’m doing more than just putting one foot in front of another, mile after mile. It’s a means by which I’ve become known. More importantly, Christ in me is made known—to people I would not otherwise have been connected to. That is healthy.
Despite all these positive outcomes, I know how easily running can slip from being spiritually and emotionally valuable to destructive. With frightening ease, it can become an idol that actually detracts from my health instead of enhancing it. I know this because I’m aware how disproportionally it can dominate my thought life and how miserable I am when injured and unable to run. I know it because I’ve met so many people who have almost drug-like dependency on how well their training is going, and I, too, can easily fall into the same trap.
We are complex beings, and what’s good in its proper place can become harmful when given too much space in our heads, hearts, and lives. Our complexity means that there’s a fine line to tread, one requiring spiritual discernment and constant self-evaluation. To accomplish this in my own life, I often cite Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Running can help me grow in godliness, but true health comes from focusing not so much on how well I run as on the extent to which I’m running after Christ.
Illustration by Matthieu Forichon