My body aches this morning. Its mostly the usual post-marathon aches, with the possible exception of my quads, which are sending pain signals that I can’t quite discern. Its kinda like that feeling you get when you laugh too hard for too long and it literally hurts—and yet you can’t stop laughing. Except more painful.
For most of the day, I will stand slowly. I will ease into chairs. I will take the elevator up, and I will walk backwards down the stairs.
But I wouldn’t trade any of this pain. This feeling means I have accomplished something I once thought was impossible. It’s the sixth time I’ve completed a marathon, and it’s the sixth time I’ve experienced this feeling.
It’s the feeling of being alive.
The rain is lightly falling on my face. I’m a little bit grumpy, even though this mist is not nearly the rain that the forecast was calling for. All around me I see the mountains of Maine rising up, trying to break through the cloud cover surrounding them. Because I’ve signed up for the early start with all the other slowpoke runners, it’s relatively quiet. The repetitive sound of sneakers lightly tapping the pavement is broken by the occasional birdsong. Even though we’re only a mile into the race, and none of the elite runners have even started the race yet, I savor the fact that I am leading this marathon.
The enjoyment of the moment is broken as I hear her quick pace coming up behind me, splish-splashing through the puddles that have formed in the gravel along the shoulder of this remote logging road. The thought takes hold in my head: “Please don’t let her be a talker. Please don’t let her be a talker.”
Running has become this quasi-zen-like spiritual experience for me. I want to be at one with nature, with God, with the road, with myself. I have an abstract appreciation for the solidarity that exists between fellow runners, but when some stranger fills my ears with banal chit-chat I am left feeling less than spiritual. I really hope she’s not a talker.
I quickly figure out she’s a talker. And since she’s running about my pace, I have no choice but to be polite and return her pleasantries. As we run and talk, we soon realize we have a lot in common. She grew up in Boston then moved to Maine; I grew up in Maine then moved to Boston. Her husband is a pilot in the service, as was my grandfather. Her mother is a choir director, as I am. She has been an administrator for a well-known psychiatric hospital in Maine—a hospital where my father and a number of his colleagues have done work over the years. We both share a love for distance running and strong dislike for all the nasty sugary foods we’re forced to choke down to sustain us during long races.
Even though Mary Louise and I probably won’t ever see each other again after today, the connections we are making will sustain us as we journey toward the finish line.
After the gospel reading, Father Vic pauses for a second and then looks around the kitchen table. I’ve never been to a Saturday night mass before, and I’ve certainly never been to mass in a kitchen before, but when you are traveling with a priest, apparently you can have mass anywhere you want. I’ve actually only been to Catholic mass twice before, but the order of service is similar enough to the Orthodox liturgies I’m used to that I am wondering whether or not he is going to give a homily now.
“So, Jesus was talking about abundant life in today’s reading,” Father Vic begins. “Rather than preaching a long sermon, I thought we might take a minute to each share, as you are comfortable, a moment in your life when you have known abundant life.”
This is different, I think. Homily as conversation rather than lecture. I could get used to this.
One by one we make our way around the table, each one sharing a reflection about our experiences of abundant life. Jorge talks about his experiences with running and overcoming obstacles. I talk about running my first marathon with my father and godmother, and how we raised money for cancer research. Though our stories are different, running and relationships are the common themes. It seems that for each of us, our most profound experiences with the fullness of life have involved moments of connection with others.
We finish sharing our stories. We finish the mass. We start cooking, and then enjoy dinner together sitting around the same table. I’m not Catholic, and this is not my tradition, but this feels a little to me like abundant life.
Over the course of the next four and a half hours, Mary Louise and I discuss a range of topics—careers, dogs, death, divorce, relationships, cancer, religion. And, of course, running.
It’s a rare occasion that I have the opportunity to spend a four hour chunk of time talking with my close friends or family. And given my dislike of chit-chatting with “talkers,” its even more rare that I do so with strangers.
As we slowly make our way down Sugarloaf, like the good theology student that I am, I find myself reflecting on the intersection of running and interfaith dialogue. How is it that I can easily spend four hours talking to a stranger?
If two complete strangers can run together for four hours and end up exchanging cold, sweaty hugs, how is it that Jews and Christians can live in the same neighborhood and never speak? That Humanists and Muslims can live on the same block in fear of one another? That Baptists and Catholics can work together for years and never get beyond their theological differences?
I’ve never been one for sports analogies. I’ve never really been one for sports at all. When I tried to play baseball or basketball growing up, I paled in comparison to my teammates—I was always the last one picked when choosing teams. My life pursuits have been music and theology. Most of my attempts at athleticism have ended up as epic failures.
Until I started running. Running was somehow different. It has never been about how much better than me other runners are. For me, running is about exploring what I am capable of doing, and learning what others are capable of doing. Its about connecting with others, connecting with life.
Every runner runs for some reason. Some run for charity. Some run from cancer. Others run for a cure. Some run to support friends or family, or in honor of lost loved ones. Some run for health. A few run to win—but most just run because they can.
Despite our many and varied reasons, as we journey from the start line, there is an ineffable sense of connection between runners. And for those 26.2 miles as we journey toward the finish, we pay little attention to our differences.
Mary Louise crosses the finish line a second ahead of me. A few steps later she stops and turns to shake my hand. I brush her hand aside in favor of a hug. We thank each other for a wonderful journey, and she heads to the restroom for a quick pitstop before running back up the course to meet her husband, who is several miles behind us.
A few moments later, Jorge sprints across the finish line. I make my way to congratulate him, but he drops to one knee and begins to cry. I give him some room, unsure of whether he is hurt or exhausted. As he stands up, he stifles his tears long enough to tell me that he beat his previous PR by over twenty minutes. I try unsuccessfully to hold back my tears as I give him a hug and celebrate with him.
As we celebrate his victory, I manage to choke out through my tears, “This is abundant life.”