The Boston Marathon & Running as Religion

In just a few days the throng of annual pilgrims will amass on their sacred city, the epicenter of their universe, the axis mundi of their religious worldview.

Will it be in Varanasi? In Rome? In Mecca, perchance?

No, this pilgrimage is to Boston. Or, rather, to Hopkinton — the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Yes, indeed, the annual Boston Marathon is more than a marathon, it’s a quintessential example of (post)modern religious pilgrimage.

While to some, running is a form of release and to others it’s simply exercise (read: torture), for a growing minion, running is religion. While some weekend warriors bemoan the fact that running hurts, that legs burn, lungs contract, brows sweat (along with a myriad of other body parts) and on long runs the minutes pass by like hours and the miles like molasses, many other athletes really enjoy the pentative part of running.

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Indeed, in many ways, running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own austere disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices and proselytizing prophets and priests. It also creates, as Emile Durkheim evinces, a “collective effervescence” of community cohesion and social interaction for the gathered faithful.

In this (post)modern world, running is but one of the ways that we “spiritual, but not religious” find religion. Running, in three key ways I explain below, is part of humanity’s “quest for complex subjectivity” (Anthony Pinn) in which they seek to answer the fundamental questions of life (who we are, why we are here, what matters, how we fit into the cosmos) in order to invest life with meaning in relation to transcendent realities.

Jogging with the gods — running asceticism

Asceticism is defined as “severe self-discipline and avoidance of indulgence.” Whatever form asceticism takes, it always involves discipline for the sake of advancement. Typically, religious adherents use spiritual and physical disciplines, often quite austere ones at that, to grow closer to the divine and to follow a path of true religious devotion. To outside observers some of these grave disciplines seem strange.

For example, there is the story of a Christian ascetic who one day slaps a mosquito on his shoulder. Upon realizing that this was a denial of suffering and that such tribulation was a part of his walk with Jesus he promptly went down to a nearby swamp, shed his clothing and stood waist deep in the waters for several hours. Upon returning from the swamp he walked into the city and no one recognized him because he was so disfigured and swollen from the mass of mosquito bites he endured.

Intense.

The gods of running, transversing hell so that we don't have to.

The gods of running, transversing hell so that we don’t have to.

An observer might react in a similar way to the story of multiple runners who compete annually in the Badwater Ultramarathon, which runs from the depths of Death Valley to the heights of the Mt. Whitney portal amidst the searingly hot temperatures of mid-July. Enduring stomach illness, sunburn, melting shoes, festering blisters, tearing muscles, hallucinations and sheer exhaustion to complete a 135-mile course that gains some 8,000 feet in elevation.

Again, intense.

All for what? A belt-buckle, a certificate printed on cheap parchment and a technical tee?

Or is the experience about something more?

A perusal of recollections of Badwater Ultra experiences include references to the spiritual journey, the solitude of the course and even one reference to fellow Badwater “Mystics.”

The feelings of pain that a runner experiences in training and in racing all pale in comparison to the rush of completing a race or struggling through salt-crusted dehydration to attain a long awaited form of marathon moksha – a release from the pressures and suffering of this present world…or in the case, this present race.

The organizers of another ultra-marathon akin to Badwater, the Ocean Floor Race, which takes competitors through a torturous 160 miles in the Egyptian desert don’t shy away from such spiritual talk:

a theme that seems to be fairly constant among entrants is how liberating it can be. Many people are consumed with pressures of modern living….By totally removing a person from that environment and stripping away these interruptions they are briefly liberated and removed from the modern pressures society imposes on them and taken on an adventure that people will rarely get to experience in a location few will get to go.

Other runners engage in running asceticism for the simple pleasure of the “runner’s high.” The “runner’s high” is actually a physio-chemical reaction induced by the body’s release of endorphins during extreme conditions. There is a rush of emotion, physical relaxation and an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility. In many ways the “runner’s high” can be said to substitute the “mystical union” that people such as Bernard of Clairveaux or Teresa of Avila have described in their own mystical memoirs. As with running asceticism, these mystics engaged in austere practices for the sake of some ecstatic moment of release and overwhelming elation akin to a “runner’s high.”

Emile Durkheim called asceticism “the negative cult” and included it as an essential component of religious life in his collective musings on religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He said that it is the aescetic virtuosos (the elite marathons and ultramarathoners of the world) that exist so that the laity (the everyday marathoners and weekend warriors) might follow their example, albeit in a limited and restrained fashion. He wrote concerning those ascetic virtuosos, “the contempt that they profess for all that ordinarily impassions men strikes us as bizarre. But those extremes are necessary to maintain among the faithful an adequate level of distaste for easy living and mundane pleasures. An elite must set the goal too high so that the mass does not set it too low. Some must go to extremes so that the average may remain high enough.” (320-321)

“By the very act of renouncing things, he has risen above things. Because he has silenced nature, he is stronger than nature,” said Durkheim. Indeed, he intimated that the ascetic may even become “equal or superior to the gods.” (316)

Replete with ascetic dimensions and ecstatic spiritual experiences for the individual runner, one can easily deduce how religion is like a personal spiritual discipline. However, the religious characteristics of running do not stop there. Beyond personal practices there is also a growing communal element of “religious running” that includes prophets, fellowships and spiritual gathering places.

Prophetic utterances

No more vocal and more outlandish than the Old Testament’s Isaiah, ultra-marathon legend and running spokesperson Dean Karnazes certainly qualifies as a running prophet.

Dean Karnazes sees running as more than a physical experience, but a spiritual awakening. He wrote in 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days – and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance, “The marathon is not about running; it is about salvation.”

To that end, Karnazes preaches the running gospel in word and deed by regularly appearing at running events and engaging in physical feats of running extremism such as the running of 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days that he recorded in the above book. The man is an animal for running extremes and has a voracious appetitive for publicity, all for the sake of converting you, the reader and couch potato, into a runner.

Then there is Kaj Arnö who founded “Runnism” the official religion of running. He wrote:

Born out of the mental peace of mind instilled by long-distance running, Runnism worships physical well-being. It starts from a simple insight: looking at running as a religion holds the promise of a happier, more energetic everyday life.

runnism_mangsprakig-215x160Arnö makes it evident that “runnism isn’t a true religion” and that it can fit the lifestyles of Buddhists, Catholics, and even atheists. He says on his website, “runnists are tolerant and respectful of true religions, while at the same time approaching life with a light heart and lots of humour.”

Still, he recognizes that “[r]eligion is important for man. And runnism derives its power from the analogy with religion.”

This is an example of a “hyper-real” religion. First coined by Adam Possamai in Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament, a hyper-real religion is “simulacrum (an imitation) of a religion created out of, or in symbiosis with, commodified popular culture which provides inspiration at a metaphorical level and/or is a source of beliefs in everyday life.” Thus, Runnism mimes religion and mines its meanings to give it shape, but is confessedly a fake. Even so, it can be, in the words of David Chidester, an “authentic fake” a fake religion that takes on “real” status in the minds and lives of its adherents to the point that their life interactions, investments, and inspirations are shaped by it. 

Indeed, as Dr. George Sheehan, former medical editor for Runner’s World magazine, wrote concerning the prompt, “Is running a religion?” that, “running…is just a monastery — a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” Nowhere is this hyper-real communion of running religion more evident than when the collective community is gathered for its own form of pilgrimage — the race.

Come to me, all who are sweaty and fast-footed

Durkheim, though he may be critiqued on many levels, pointed out to us that religion is in many ways a sociological phenomenon as much as a spiritual one. When it comes to running religion there is ample evidence to attest to this fact.

There are clubs across the world that provide runners a means of fellowship quite like the local synagogue or church. To be sure, in most running clubs you can find the traditional aspects of any church: fellowship, discipleship, worship, service and outreach. Runners fellowship via regular training runs, races and social events like “pub runs.” They learn from local talent and invite experts to come and speak at club meetings like disciples with a rabbi. They admire and revere their best runners and venerate the pros who set records and win races like saints. They volunteer at running events, raise money and organize around special needs in critical times supporting one another through conversation and comfort. Finally, running clubs and individuals who run engage in outreach by inviting friends to “join” the group and become part of the “growing running community.” This aspect of running was even recently encouraged in the December 2010 edition of Runner’s World when an author said that convincing her sluggish friends to run with what she calls a “missionary zeal” is the best part of running.

'Pre's Rock' -- a shrine to the saint of running in the misty mountains of the West.

‘Pre’s Rock’ — a shrine to the saint of running in the misty mountains of the West.

There are even shrines and holy places for the running faithful to flock to.

Ultra marathon trail runner and writer Rachel Toor writes of her love affair with trail running in her op-ed piece, “Ode to Dirt.” In it she says, ”Because trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond. Because dirt is elemental.”

It seems that for this runner, and those who related to her article, the free trail is the new communion rail where the religious adherent and the “divine” meet in sublime encounter.

Some physical places even strike runner’s with a sense of “awe.” All you have to do is mention places like The Rift Valley, the Oregon University Track, or Tavern on the Green and runners are filled with a sense of excitement for the running lore of such a locale. Then there are literal running shrines, such as Pre’s Rock in Oregon where runners pay respects to a running legend with an uncanny resemblance to Jesus (facial hair, long locks, tragic death near 30…). Finally, there is Hopkington, Massachusetts — the nucleus of world running and the holy center of marathoning worldwide. Although it was a marathon-mecca before the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the event is not imbued with even more transcendent significance. With shoes looped around makeshift shrines, statues lining the course, set apart sites dedicated to the marathon throughout the year, and throngs of devotees seeking darshan (a sacred glimpse) with runners-passing-by on race day Hopkington, and the entire Boston-marathon course, is teeming with spiritual undertones. At the starting line, with the crack of the starting gun, the entire crowd collectively feels the divine touch, a shiver that runs down their spine, the ethereal energy that enlivens their bodies, and the numinous adrenaline that will rapture them to the finish line.

All of this contributes to running religion’s “collective effervescence.” Durkheim outlined “collective effervescence” as a magnified and adrenalized response of a group of people sharing an experience together. It not only excites those who experience, or emote, something in common, but this collective effervescence can also produce a religious experience that makes participants feel closer to their god. 

Durkheim wrote that, “god and society are one of the same…the god of the clan…can be none other than the clan itself, but the clan transfigured and imagined in the physical form of a plant or animal that serves as a totem.” In this case, the totem is running itself and runners experience a loss of their individual running self in the unity with the running community, from the frontrunners to the final finishers.

Conclusions & Musings

Certainly, running has its religious dimensions.

The author in holy rapture at the finish of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

The author in holy rapture at the finish of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

And surveying running’s religious aspects showcases a general spiritual trend in the (post)modern world that values a different path than what is offered in traditional religion. However, at the same time, this spiritual but not religious pursuit of the “runner’s high” (you might say) also exhibits common elements of more institutional religions — asceticism, prophetic leaders, and collective effervescence. But the similarities do not end there.

Throughout religious history the ultimate suffering of death has remained at the forefront of theological thought. Through religion, humans attempted to make sense of death and the chaos it presents confronting the seeming order of human life. To alienate death as an experience that can be integrated into reality and foreseeably conquered, religion introduced suffering as a key element to the spiritual experience.

Religious asceticism serves as a way to mitigate the ultimate suffering of death with the end goal of hope, joy and release from all pain in mind. Prophets call people to live life to the fullest, or even unto its eternal dimensions. A collective feeling may enrapture a religious community so fully that they forget the limited run of their bodies on earth and be caught up in the liminal space between life and death. Call it what you want: nirvana, beatific vision or paradise, the eternal religious ideal has included some form of suffering on earth, whether the devotees’ own or someone else’s, that produces ecstasy beyond the grips of death.

In the same way, running’s religious adherents seek to minimize the sting of death by highlighting how the human body and spirit can overcome pain and adversity to claim the prize of finishing the race, pushing the limits of human achievement and the threshold for suffering and pain together with other human beings running the same race, pursuing the same goal, and experiencing the same struggle.

At its core, the religious aspects of running reflect the human pursuit to understand death within a system that relegates it to being a minimal experience in relation to some form of communal ecstasy.

In the past, asceticism served to become a recapitulation of that cosmic reality and it is no different in running religion today. To run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.

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