Running was one of the most important things that brought me to the Catholic Church.
My journey is rather unique. When I ran my first half marathon in 2011, I had just become a Christian after growing up Jewish for most of my life. By my second full marathon in January 2017, I was in RCIA, preparing to enter the Catholic Church.
Until very recently, I never would have imagined that this would be my story. In middle school, I dreaded the mile run we had to do in PE class every week. In high school, I felt judged and criticized by my Catholic boyfriend’s mother, which left a bad taste in my mouth for the Church as a whole. Yet, when I decided to train for a half marathon to get over a broken heart, I saw that God was slowly and gently directing me down this path. I haven’t regretted this direction one bit.
Running and Catholicism
It’s difficult to run without thinking of the frequent use of running metaphors in the Bible. Many people might call to mind the author of Hebrews’ encouragement to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Indeed, while I’ve trained and strengthened my body for races, I’ve trained and strengthened my soul for the spiritual race. Here are five lessons I’ve learned.
1. What You Eat Matters
When you start training for longer races, you quickly realize that you can’t just hit the neighborhood in your shoes. You need sustenance for anything longer than about 8 miles. Otherwise, your body will expend all of the calories you’ve eaten so far, and you’ll crash. Additionally, you need the right amount and balance of carbs/proteins/fats, even on days when you’re not running. Today, you eat for tomorrow.
When it comes to our Faith, Who we consume during Mass transforms us. Jesus in the Eucharist, of course. The Eucharist nourishes us and sanctifies us so that we can be in union with God. We eat this Sacrament on earth in order that we may enjoy a Heavenly reward in the future.
2. Discipline Leads to Joy
I had to become very disciplined to train for my first marathon. It meant I missed nights out with my friends since I had an early morning run the next day with my teammates. In the last few weeks of training, I had to restrain myself from drinking a beer at dinner while everyone else enjoyed a cold one. Not to mention the fact that, most of the time, I didn’t even feel like lacing up my shoes and hitting the pavement at all. But if I didn’t make all of these short-term choices, I would regret it in the long-run.
It wasn’t only my Catholic boyfriend’s mother who kept me away from the Church for so long. It was also all of the rules and regulations that I found to be restrictive and antithetical to the Christian value of love. Yet running taught me that following a guide ultimately causes me more joy than suffering. In fact, it’s the decisions I make that go against my training plan that make me the most miserable. I may not understand why the Church has a certain teaching. But now, I know that means I just need to learn more about it, rather than ignore it altogether.
3. Sometimes it Requires Solitude
I just finished the Bourbon Chase this past weekend. It’s a different kind of race, a relay with 12 teammates who each run three legs of a 200-mile race alone. One of my legs was at 3 a.m. Although there was a runner a couple of hundred feet ahead of me at all times, in essence it was just me, the light from my headlamp shining on the ground, and the stars and moon above me. I was alone. But that was okay.
Solitude in the spiritual race is even more than okay. In fact, it’s something that we need to embrace more often. Remember how often Jesus went away to spend time alone with his Father before going back to teach the crowds? God wants to spend time with us without any distractions. That’s how much He loves us.
4. Other Times, Community is a Necessity
Back to the Bourbon Chase. My third and final leg of the race was at 2 p.m., and that meant there was a 20 degree difference in temperature. Praying the rosary to the pace of my feet worked in cooler weather, but it wasn’t quite as helpful in the midday heat. Although I was grateful to be alone for my second leg of the race, I was equally excited to match pace with a stranger on my last leg of the race. He and I only talked for a little bit. But just having someone else beside me to complain about the weather every once in a while was enough to keep me going.
Similarly, the Church is made up of individuals working on their relationship with God. But it’s often the communal aspects of the Church that encourage us to go deeper into the Faith. I can’t tell you how often I’ve appreciated it when a member of my parish asks where I was one weekend. It’s not accusatory. Instead, it’s genuine concern about my wellbeing, since it’s not typical for me to miss Mass. On another level, the Communion of Saints is another example of looking at the example of others in order to become as virtuous and holy as we possibly can.
5. Everyone Can Do It – But It Takes a Lot of Work
Speaking of the saints, here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from running: It’s not out of reach for anyone. After I finished my first full marathon, I actually felt very uncomfortable with the impressed looks and comments I got from my friends and family. I felt like a fraud because, in the end, it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as everyone thinks. It takes a certain amount of training and hard work, yes. You just have to decide to do that work.
Lately I’ve been wondering if this is how the saints might feel if we were to speak with them. Some do have awe-inspiring stories that seem outside the realm of possibility for ourselves. But others are holy in a simple way. Mother Teresa herself, in the darkest point in her spiritual life, may never have felt worthy to receive sainthood. Yet she did, and we are all called to strive for the same ideal. The only thing that’s holding us back is ourselves.
What areas of your life teach you lessons about prayer and relationship with God?
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Johnna Dominguez is a four-time half marathon and two-time marathon finisher who became Catholic during the 2017 Easter Vigil. She is currently developing a running and prayer journal for Catholic women to use during Advent and through Lent. You can connect with Johnna and find out more about the #CatholicWomenRun challenge on Twitter, Instagram, and on her blog.