When I was 26 or 27 years old, I decided that I wanted to start running to improve my fitness. Since it was a mile from my home to my office, I resolved to run from my home to work in the morning and run back at lunch three days a week. After a couple of weeks, my stride landed in a pothole. I emerged from the experience with a sprained ankle that ended my running project for about eight years. When I learned at age 35 that I would be commissioned as an Army Reserve Component Chaplain, and realized that running would once more become part of my life. For the next twenty-four years, I ran regularly, motivated initially by the need to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test.
After the first year, I realized that I would need to run more than six miles a week to maintain the running speed I needed to pass the test. As my fourth year began and as I planned to step up my training in anticipation to moving to the active- duty component of the Army, I noticed a brochure for a Leukemia Society program that linked fundraising for their much-needed work to forming teams-in-training for a 26.2 mile marathon. I would run and finish that marathon, thanks to encouraging teammates and a coach who was a kinesiology professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. During that marathon training, and even more during the race, prayer and reflection on Scripture became increasingly part of my running experience. In fact, I would develop a sermon and a motivational lecture from memories of my reflections during the race. An additional benefit of the race training was that I emerged from it, at almost forty years of age, running faster than I ever had before. Although my running speed would gradually slow as I aged, the praying and reflecting remain part of my running regimen.
When I retired from the military over three years ago, suddenly it seemed much harder to run. Walking took the place of running until less than three months ago, when I decided to try to run one day. For the first time in years, running was fun again, and I began to work it back into my fitness schedule along with walking and bicycling. This past November 30th, a message promoting the World Wide WordPress 5K virtual race showed up in my email box, encouraging bloggers to run a five kilometer run during December. I have run several since then and remain discouraged with my time. But with each running attempt, I feel stronger and run with less effort, breathing easier. During part of my 5k route, I ran through a wooded area. Part of the trail led me over a bridge across a creek. The view from the bridge includes a small waterfall, Angel Falls, which lifts my spirits when I see it. Deer, an opossum, squirrels, and an owl caught my eye as I ran. Familiar comrades in walking, running, or cycling waved as our paths crossed. The lush green of the woodland trail has turned to barren gray in December, but the vitality of the wildlife and my fellow human walkers remained.
Running, walking, and cycling, mixed with prayer and reflection, have helped me stay strong physically, mentally, and spiritually during pandemic-related restrictions on social activity this past year. I include a mask among what I carry as I run now, in case I cannot maintain six feet of distance when I encounter a group or a friend on the trail. As I run, I reflect most on two passages of the Bible. One is the end of one of my favorite biblical passages, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah:
“Do you not know? Having you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).
On one of my recent runs, a boy shouted, “Hey, old man!” while I was running. I did a quick 360 degree perimeter scan, saw no old man, and kept running. While I am older now, exercising physically and spiritually help me stay focused on God being my sustainer rather than waiting for the approval of other people. The other passage helps me remember the value of consistency and discipline in running, reading the Bible, and prayer:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Discipline in prayer and reading of the Bible help us to improve our communication with God. Discipline in physical exercise like running improves our physical and mental health. Combining spiritual and physical exercise helps us improve our health holistically. I encourage you to walk or run with prayer and reflection on the words of God.
O God who calls us to run the race of life with faith, renew our strength when we falter. Heal us when we incur injury in body or spirit. Help us to remain focused on the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ, as we run and walk. May we remember as we run and pray how others prayed. May their cries of desperation and jubilation inspire us to greater devotion and help us to cross the finish line successfully. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
- Quotations of the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.