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Running and walking through God’s good grace

by
20 October 2023

Pat Ashworth hears about the benefits for physical and spiritual health

THERE is a moment in the film Chariots of Fire when the missionary athlete, Eric Liddell, is articulating his compulsion to run. “I believe God made me for a purpose . . . but he also made me fast,” he says with passion. “And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

There is no Olympic goal in the Revd Adrian Chatfield’s sights, but his sentiments about running are similar. He had always cycled, but a move to the flat land of Cambridge in his early sixties presented few challenges to a cyclist, and he began running the six miles to work, and six miles back, a couple of days each week.

The first time he did it, he half-walked the return journey. But he found that, when he got into the rhythm of it, he could do six miles non-stop — and then 13. So, when the Cambridge half-marathon was relaunched, he signed up for that, and ran with increasing enjoyment.

“I run in different ways,” he reflects. “Sometimes, it is a thinking exercise: preparing a sermon, or praying actively. I have a sense that my body is my gift from God, and it’s built for running. So, running is an expression of grace; the act of running a kind of offering.

“Sometimes, it is just enjoyment, because I like stretching myself, and I’ve realised that if you don’t have to do anything when you’re retired, you could become a slob and never be stretched.” Also, being taken out of your comfort zone is an important part of life, he reflects, “something which makes you more alive and more alert”.

He had the first sense of running as an offering to God on that first half-marathon, when he crossed Elizabeth Bridge, turned to go along the Backs, and saw a woman in an old people’s home waving to him from a third-floor window. He waved back.

“The first thought was that I’d made her day. The second was that she’d made mine,” he remembers. “At that point, I realised that running wasn’t about doing something that made me, or other people, feel better. This was who I was. I’ve never forgotten that.”

He bird-watches while he’s running, charts wild flowers, and makes lists of them in his head. “A lot of runners talk about getting ‘in the zone’. I know what that means, but I’m a strong thinker; so I think about what I’m thinking about, what I’m thinking about. . . I’m very aware of myself, my surroundings, and my environment. I like the thinking space, the reflecting space, the enjoyment space. I enjoy the world.”

It requires discipline, too, he suggests, “particularly on a winter’s morning, when I don’t feel in the least like going out”.

NOW retired, and living close to the Peak District, he walks, too, mostly with his wife, Jill. That’s a lot about companionship, as well as the exhilaration of being out in the open air, he suggests.

He has vivid recollections of running up Kinder Scout towards Grindsbrook Clough and beyond, one autumn day in the Peak, and being confronted with the force of water flowing down, prohibiting the scramble that he was expecting.

“I ended up going up the hillside, and across the heather, and through the sheep, which was very difficult. I was on all fours, and I was struck by the fact that the sheep didn’t seem to be threatened by me because I was on all fours, like they were. But there was a sense of being very small, and how dangerous things can be without any warning at all. It was an intense experience — that sense of being alive, I have a life.”

 

THE Revd Dr Michael Volland, Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and Bishop-elect of Birmingham (News, 1 September), reveals that he was so inspired by the sight of Adrian Chatfield, about 20 years his senior, running past his house in the Cambridge half-marathon, that he took running up himself. “I thought, ‘If he can do this, I can do this.’”

That was six years ago. Now 49, he has 13 ultra-marathons — ranging from 50k to 100k — under his belt. “I think we’re designed to move and be outside, and there’s a kind of deep joy that goes with that; doing what you’re created for,” he says.

“I love having some time on my own. I don’t run with others, generally. It’s good to just have some space — that sense of headspace, especially, to process and to pray, and even to pray out loud.”

He runs on trails, away from the town centre, something he’ll continue with enthusiasm when he gets to Birmingham.

“I was very clear with everyone in the [selection] process about my love of running. I believe it’s an important thing. I believe it’s a gift from God, and therefore an important facet of life — not a kind of optional fun extra like going to the cinema, but an important, crucial facet of life.

“It means you have space to process, and think carefully about complex things, and pray, so that you can do the work God is calling you to do more carefully — and, hopefully, more fruitfully. So, I’ll certainly be making a priority of finding time to run, if the Lord continues to give me the strength to do it.”

He recalls a memorable conversation with a woman in her eighties and her 50-year-old daughter at Berlin Airport, when he was waiting with his family to fly home. “They’d come to Berlin to take part in a run, and the woman asked me, ‘Are you a runner? You look like a runner — you’re tall and slim.’ I said, ‘No, actually, I don’t run.’

“And she said, ‘Well, you should do,’” he remembers. “It was a sort of prophetic word.” When he got to Heathrow, she was waiting for him at the arrivals gate. “She took my hands, and looked me right in the eyes, and said, ‘You have a marathon in you.’ I thought, ‘Maybe I do.’

“So, it was her encouragement and Adrian’s inspiring example that got into my heart and prompted me to start running. It’s such a big passion of mine, a real gift; so I’m really pleased to be able to talk about it.”

He was thrilled to see a Ridley ordinand, a wheelchair user, in last year’s half-marathon. “They told her: ‘We don’t have a wheelchair category,’ and she said: ‘Well, you do now.’”

 

THERE has been an explosion of interest in Parkrun: a free community event in which you can walk, jog, or run the 5k route in spaces the length and breadth of the UK. It takes place every Saturday morning, is positive, welcoming, and inclusive, and has no time limit: no one finishes last.

There are currently 1218 Parkrun events, and more are being added all the time. Many members of church running clubs do Parkrun; several of them, in fact, set up their clubs there. Christian Runners is one that encourages people to join in with Parkrun, and to select Christian Runners UK as their running club. All are welcome, they say: it’s not restricted to church members.

Church Runners (motto: “Running Religiously”) says that its members run for a variety of reasons: some to display their faith in God, others for fun or fitness.

“We recognise the importance of physical health,” they say, “but we believe spiritual health is just as important. We would love to encourage other Christians by clearly identifying ourselves and inspiring others to run for God.”

And then there is the plethora of Christian and church walking clubs: one, the Christian Walking Club, organises between 30 and 40 events a year, and grades its walks so that walkers know exactly where they can slot in.

There is the “Walk Church” movement, too, the idea of the Revd Alex Bienfait, now a self-supporting minister in the Ashford Town Team Ministry. Walk Church is a Fresh Expression there, fired by his lifelong concern for the health of the planet, and his enthusiasm for incorporating an appreciation of nature in worship.

“With Walk Church, we move out of the security of a building and into the open, where we can experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in the wildness of nature. There, we can allow ourselves to be surprised and challenged by potential insights inspired by new surroundings,” the organisation says.

“It includes many of the features of mainstream church, such as Bible-reading, prayer, and preaching, but all in the context of a walk that is three to four miles long, with the opportunity of fellowship, as well as periods of deliberate silence.

“We never really know how things will go, but remain open to being surprised by our awe of nature, allowing the landscape to speak into moment of our lives and inform our conversation and prayers. With Walk Church, each meeting becomes a pilgrimage and an adventure.”

 

IF EVIDENCE were needed of the health benefits of movement, a recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggested that walking about 4000 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, while 2337 steps a day reduced the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases. Each increase of 1000 steps a day was associated with a 15-per-cent reduction in the risk of dying from any cause.

And justice issues, so pertinent to Christians, raise their head in relation to walking. A new study commissioned by the walking charity the Ramblers, and carried out by the New Economic Foundation, has recently been released, showing the inequalities of access to the countryside. Residents of the wealthiest areas in England and Wales have 80 per cent more paths in their local area than those of the most deprived areas. Where health is the worst, the number of paths is the lowest.

The pathwork is a national treasure, adding healthy years of life to the nation and worth an estimated £33 for every person in England and Wales, the Ramblers says. Inequalities of access could be addressed by reinstating “lost” rights of way, and creating new paths, as well as protecting existing paths, it says.

christianrunners.co.uk
churchrunner.co.uk
christianwalkingclub.org.uk/what-we-do
ramblers.org.uk/who-has-access-our-paths

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