I stood in line in what felt like a sea of people. I had just days before purchased some new Under Armour gear for the event: compression leg tights, new sweat hat and a very cool looking training t-shirt. The morning was a chilly 58 degrees but the sun rising sun promised a prefect morning for a run. It September 21st of 2014 and I was about to run my first half marathon. I arrived at the starting corral at about 6:30 am and joined up with pace group for the half marathon. I don’t remember now what the pace time was. But I had no idea what pace to run. The training I had done was full of stops and starts because I would train with Zion and Mary on their bikes. So I just joined a group and hoped it was a good decision.
At 6:45 am, a singer took the microphone and sang the national anthem. For the first time, what was about to happen began to sink in. The large crowd, the national anthem, the long path ahead of me, the uncertainty about what I will experience. These elements seemed to break my shell and I began to feel emotional. It was a burst of emotion that caught me off guard – one I had in no way anticipated. But it was to continue for most of the 13.1 miles that morning I would run.
I have jogged for exercise inconsistently since my late-twenties, but the longest I had ever run was 8 or 9 miles, and that was only once. When we lived in Cambridge, that idyllic city, I found running the “backs” (the college gardens along the River Cam) to be about the most enjoyable exercise I had ever experienced. I can still vividly remember watching winters turn to spring as the flowers and trees budded and then bloomed. Running week in and week out year in and year out allowed me to experience the change of seasons which in Cambridge with the many gardens was an awe inspiring sight.
But it was not until I was 43, just three years ago, that I decided to give the half marathon a try. The location marathon was part of the decision to do it. The Fox Valley Marathon starts and finishes literally just a few blocks from my front door in downtown St. Charles. Over the course of a few years, I noticed, after a couple of years in a row, that music and a voice would resonate up from a loud speaker from downtown early on a September morning. This was how I first discovered that a there was a marathon so close to my house.
So my adventurous heart, which longs for new experiences, the practice of running I had established, albeit inconsistently, and the proximity to the Fox Valley Marathon all combined to compel me to sign up.
At 7 o’clock sharp the gun sounded and the waves of runners began to cross the start line. As I began to put my legs and arms in that familiar motion something felt different. I had cued my iPod to play U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” As I began to run, I heard this opening lyric:
I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch flame
Where the streets have no name
As I took those first steps along that 13.1-mile route, I felt something powerful and emotional. I was completely surprised. I became overwhelmed with feeling and I began to weep as I ran. I felt the walls around my heart giving way and I felt a deep connection to myself, to God, to his world and to the others who were running all around me. As the song came to an end, I quickly struggled with my iPod to put it on repeat. I did not want to leave that place of presence. I played “Streets” again and again in those first few miles through the little town of Geneva attempting to sustain what was becoming one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had.
In those first three miles of my first half marathon I felt a wholeness, a purity, an innocence of experience . . . again. I felt free. I felt connected. I felt openhearted.
I became a runner that day.
I have not found another spiritual practice that has the capacity to open my heart more than running a long way. Every time I’m out on the trail along the Fox River where I live, God invites me to openhearted life.
Last year I decided to run my first full marathon. And, although I did not set out to do this, I ended up running three marathons. I loved it!
This year I will run two, one in September and one in October.