A Journey Begins
I’m fully clothed, wearing a sweater even, in bed with the blankets pulled over my head. I’m cold on the inside. I’m not feeling particularly well. And I’m a bit down, to be honest. I blame it on the first half-week of Lent. And I blame it on the weather. After a particularly warm February, we in northeastern Ohio have been blasted with a few days of real Winter, early March cold. I’m trying to psych myself up enough to get my workout in for the day. It’s only four miles. That’s part of the problem. It shouldn’t be this difficult. It doesn’t help that the sweater I’m wearing is from completing the Leadville 100. I hate being out of shape.
Since it’s pitch-dark already and my workout is short, I’m going to stay in the neighborhood. We live exactly at the middle of a half-mile long street. Each lap I have to face the 13-degree wind chill only half the time, and then I turn my back to it. Up and down, back and forth. It’s not that hard. I can do this. I am not even going to wear a watch. No pace pressure.
So I put on a turtle neck, a white cotton long sleeve tee on top and then my reflector vest. The shirt is from the Boston Marathon, circa 1998 or 1999. That was when I was trying (and failing) to make an Olympic Marathon Trials cut-off time. When you are a runner, you tend to wear your memories. I got my gloves around the same time. Swag from some forgotten race. My buff came much later, when I was doing ultras. It is my constant companion on cold runs. Shorts, tights, socks. Beat up, way-past-expiration Asics shoes. I kiss my wife and grumble, put my face into the wind, and go.
Back. Thank God for hot water. Seriously. The cold burned my lungs and I cough a lot. This all seems so pathetic. I am starting from scratch and it’s a bitch. How can it be that only a couple of years ago I was running multiple ultras each year? But I know that the key is to be faithful, faithful today. Somehow, if I do today what God has called me to do, it is enough. Even four miles is enough, today. Somehow the end is fully present in the now, as long as you are faithful. This is one of the lessons about the Christian life that running has taught me.
Other than marriage, I have learned more about spirituality through long-distance running than through anything else in my life. Somehow the intensely corporal activity of running has merged with my interior life in ways that I never could have predicted. It is not only the meditative physical motion. I am addicted to the silence. Running opens me to the wider material and to the spiritual world. I am able to hear the still, small voice more clearly. And the really long runs, especially the long ultras like a 100-mile trail or a 24-hour road race, strip me down to the core. There is an entire life’s journey in each one of those races. I am never the same person at the end as I was at the beginning.
I have always loved epic journeys of all kinds. When I was a child in the back seat of our car on vacation, I would look out toward the horizon and imagine just walking across the landscape. I am a born pilgrim. My literary heroes, like Frodo Baggins, are pilgrims, too. I love reading travel literature. This week I am reading Andrew Wilson’s Here I Walk (what a great title, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before). It is the account of his and his wife Sarah’s 1000-mile journey from Erfurt, Germany to Rome. They follow (as much as possible) the footsteps of a pre-Reformation Martin Luther’s 1510 journey as a representative of the Observant Augustinians. Of course, my enjoyment of this book has a lot to do with the fact that as a historian I work a lot with Luther, but it’s a great read for anyone. Their journey is so enjoyable for me, at least in part, because they journey through Church history as well as through the landscape. They are sensitive to how architecture has affected faith, and continues to do so, whether it is a real life church lean-to charnel house (I didn’t know any of these even remained! One can see bones stacked like cordwood through the locked grate!) or soul-crushing urban sprawl (yes, this exists in Europe, too). Most powerful to me are reading about providential encounters with amazing and interesting people. When one goes on any epic journey, be it an ultra or a pilgrimage walk, one realizes how dependent you are on the grace and generosity of others. Epic journeys can shrink denominational differences and bind people together in amazing ways. These Lutheran scholars were absolutely right to consider this Protestant pilgrimage to be an ecumenical endeavor. It seems an appropriate read for the first week Lent.
And Lent also seems an appropriate time to begin running again, as difficult as it is. I just have to keep being faithful, day by day. It will be part of my Lenten discipline. Remember: the end is fully present in the now. But what end? That is a good question. I do have hopes and dreams. “Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past, you must fight just to keep them alive.” Cliché, but a good motto for my journey right now. I invite you to follow along and see where it goes.
Ash Wednesday 2017 3
First Sunday of Lent 6