Giles Fraser: Running can seem like prayer

by
11 January 2012

I have started running. I suppose it’s a New Year thing; it began a few weeks before Christmas. I am now up to ten kilometres, three times a week. And, yes, I feel better and have lost a shed-load of weight. But, as I pound my way round by the river, I keep wondering whether there is a spiritual angle to all of this.

It was the US theologian Stanley Hauerwas who first put the thought in my head. He has damaged his knees now — after miles of pounding the streets — and has to go on one of those tortuous-looking cross trainers at the gym. But he swears blind that running saved his sanity during some of the toughest periods of his life. So I thought I would give it a try.

It is interesting that friends have described my new health-kick as my “being good”, in the same way as it is apparently “being good” when you lay off the carbohydrates. It seems strange that fitness and virtue seem to have some sort of linguistic connection, because I am not entirely sure how they are connected in reality. A great deal of fitness is bound up with an obsession with body image, which can, of course, be terribly self-absorbed.

So what is the spiritual benefit? What I have noticed has something to do with perspective. In one sense, this may be generated by something as simple as being outside and by the river — one of the few places in London where the sky is big, the view is longer, and the eye can adjust to focusing on things at a distance. Yet the act of physical exertion does also seem to put your mind in a different place. Being out of breath and pushing your body to keep on going allows no place for all that unhelpful rumination on life’s troubles.

It is the very opposite of the brooding anxiety that can appear in the study or the coffee shop. On a long run, the part of my brain that can go in a fretful loop seems to shut down. Oddly, this makes running feel mentally very calm. As I am beginning to discover, it is a place where I can go to “Be still and know . . .”

Prayer, as many holy people have attested, is more about listening than it is about intercession. God knows what I want and need much earlier than I do. In order to listen, we must first turn down the con­tinual chatter of our own internal dialogue. I must stop listening to me.

As I bend double on Blackfriars Bridge at the end of a run, puffing and panting, it is not uncommon for some new perspective to emerge — something bigger than me, something wider, and less self-absorbed. I am not sure that this is “being good” as such, but it does feel much like prayer. And both, of course, can be tough on the knees.

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