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Interview: Austen Hardwick, teacher, musician, and runner

19 June 2020

‘Running allows me to hear God’

I’m a deputy head teacher in a primary school in Kent. I teach a variety of subjects, and lead two school choirs as music coordinator.

Remote learning has been a steep learning-curve, but one which I’ve found very fulfilling. I’m enjoying developing skills through new means of communication, and seeing the children daily is reassuring — I think it gives them some continuity. It has its challenges, too, because the community side of school life can’t be replaced, of course, and that’s a valuable piece of education.

I had a wonderful childhood in east London, and I have fond memories of church and Sunday roasts. I enjoyed school, and loved art and sport in particular. After qualifying as a theatre designer and becoming an art teacher, I spent seven years as a Salvation Army Officer in Yorkshire, before moving to Kent with my wife and two children in 2010. Our home is now a vibrant place with lots of music, running, and juggling of diaries.

I grew up as a cornet player in the Salvation Army. I discovered Eric Clapton and blues music during my teens and became a self-taught guitarist, following in my father’s footsteps, playing in various blues bands. These days, I occasionally play guitar in my church or arrange acoustic duets and trios.

I’ve always been a keen footballer and rugby player, but I started running seriously before my first marathon in 1998. I experienced such freedom and personal satisfaction in completing this distance, I have remained a runner ever since.

I might run ten miles in one go at the weekend, and have a proper break from the routines of work. Once you’ve got to a basic level of fitness, the pain subsides and you could probably run for ever, if you were content to sustain a steady pace. It’s a form of rest and relaxation.

After the first half an hour of a run, my brain is ready to start processing things, and I find I resolve many issues, make clear decisions. I think it may have something to do with physiological processes, and you feel more positive and hopeful.

The “high” is physical, emotional, and spiritual. The physical gains from running bring me emotional satisfaction, which I am able to articulate through my understanding of God as an all-encompassing creator. I prefer to treat matter and spirit as inseparable these days.

I grew up when it was looked down on to play sport on a Sunday, and receptivity to God meant stillness of the mind. I’m quite an active, creative, thinking, visual person — I’d read something but then go and garden, or take a photograph, or phone a friend. To try and discern God by keeping still in one place didn’t work for me.

I didn’t expect running to become a spiritual discipline, but I distinctly remember coming back from an early training run, and I’d listened to a sermon on my playlist and some music, and got home and said: “I feel I’ve already been to church.” The run and the music and the solitude had done all the things I’d have normally received from church, except the community — meeting with others.

Running hasn’t replaced church for me, because I need to be involved in the lives of other people, and join in with communion, but I realised that running would allow me to hear God — not in a voice, but in my understanding. Things arrive as gifts, all grace, and it happens when I run.

I wrote about all this in Ever Present, because I’d blogged for a couple of years and been told by some readers that I really should take my writing to the next stage. I love words, in particular visual metaphor, and I wanted to write a book which reached two audiences; those who love sport but have never considered faith in God, and those who love God but perhaps needed to consider the availability of his presence outside the Church.

I’m thrilled that more people are taking up exercise at this time of isolation and social distancing. The internet is a wonderful resource for those of us needing the right kit while staying safe.

My friend, the Olympian Ian Richards, in his foreword to the book, commented that Eric Liddell felt God’s pleasure when he was running, whereas I felt his presence. My running experience has its ups and downs, its pains and pleasures, and it seems that God is able to speak through them both.

Nobody’s immune to suffering. The human body’s a miracle of complex operations that work in synchronisation, of which we are unaware until something misfires. My brain haemorrhaged three times, but this has only served to teach me how wonderful it is and to be grateful for it. I hope the strokes have given me a story worth telling.

Although I know its thrill, I am not addicted to running. Rest and recuperation allowed me the time to write; so I was never bored in recovery. In fact, I saw the recovery period as a gift where I could get many of my thoughts on paper while learning to walk again. My brain surgeon gave me permission to go and get on with my life; so I still run — though I’m always careful to keep hydrated. I’m still hoping to run my third London Marathon in sub-four hours.

On 21 March 1994, I had my first conviction of God coming to earth in Jesus Christ, thanks to the intelligent and reasonable influence of my wife over lunch on our first date. I realised that she had thought her faith through and I hadn’t. Later that night, I picked up Nicky Gumbel’s pamphlet Why Jesus? and found myself in tears. I had my first experience of the presence of God.

My faith has moved, as Richard Rohr says, from the transactional to the transformational. Faith is no longer about best behaviour which merits success, happiness, or prosperity, because bad things, like strokes, still happen. My faith development has been centred around the cross and resurrection. The cross of Christ is the creative exchange of suffering for the best God can give. I now have a fullness of life underpinned by knowledge of this grace.

The bravest thing I’ve done was to move my wife and two young children from Yorkshire to Kent to begin new jobs in a location where we knew very few people.

What makes me angry? Anything too mentally demanding after 9 p.m. I’ve always been a morning person.

I’m happiest when I’m walking in the hills, possibly the Lake District, with my wife and children, followed by some fruit cake and a cup of tea beside an open fire.

I love the sound of singing “Glad all over” when Crystal Palace walk onto the pitch at Selhurst Park. It used to be “Glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur!” for the same reason, but that’s another story.

I have great hope in the recovery of what is important: talking to friends, mealtimes, being among nature. The human race is being treated to a recalibration of priorities, from which a very different society could emerge. Loving God and our neighbours more perhaps?

I pray most for my wife and children.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d like to pick the brains of Ravi Zacharias, Henri Nouwen, or Dallas Willard, or anyone who’s spent their life wrestling with the big questions of faith and whose insights have fuelled many of my long training runs.


Austen Hardwick was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Ever Present: Running to survive, thrive and believe is published by Authentic Media; £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1788931366.

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