Why?

“Why would anyone run 26.2 miles unless somebody is chasing you?”

It has something to do with love and death.

The day after running a marathon, hobbling around, draining fluid from my swollen toe, and popping naproxen to calm down all the inflammation in my knees and hips, I ask myself again, “Why am I doing this?” While friends and family members may leaf through the mental health diagnostic manual to point me toward the answer, I hand them a list of reasons. I’m too tired to recite them, so I have written them down.

It’s a good way to raise money for good causes.

There are other ways to raise money. That doesn’t really explain why someone would train for and run a 26.2 mile race.

It’s also a good outlet for my competitive instincts. There are parts of my natural personality that I have to hold in check in my role as pastor. Winning theological arguments may be a contact sport in academic circles, but in a church board meeting, throwing an opponent to the floor and doing a moonwalk victory dance, while briefly satisfying, does not serve God or the church well.

Of course, there are easier ways than endurance races to experience winning. If I learned how to count cards, I could satisfy my competitive instincts and perhaps make a little extra money (a tenth of which would go in the offering plate, of course).

A race well run scratches an itch that rarely gets attended to in ministry, receiving results commensurate with effort. Our best work in God’s vineyard may not bear fruit for another generation or six. But, if I just want to see results from a job well done, I could mow the lawn and earn a few SAUs (Spousal Approval Units).

A wheezing overweight Princeton professor/psychologist/minister puffed on his pipe, blew smoke in my face, and diagnosed runners as “faithless narcissists who think they can outrun death.” While I disagree with his assessment, I agree that the deepest motivations for the distance runner have to do with reflection on mortality.

We are not kidding ourselves. We will die.

Empirical evidence suggests that exercise enthusiasts will die about two years later than we would otherwise, and that the last decade or two will more likely be much more vital than if we were not fit; but, we will die and we all know that.

And, the two extra years we get may not be as much as the time we spend training.

The inevitability of death, however, does not diminish the value of death-defiance.

The legendary origin of the marathon tells of the courier Pheidippides bringing news of the victory in battle of the Greeks over the Persians in the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.). Having run nearly 150 miles in the day and a half before to summon help, he returned to Athens from Marathon (approximately 26.2 miles) calling out to the magistrates, “Joy! We have won!” and dying with the shout of joy on his lips.

Wait just a second. He DIED? And that inspires thousands of people every week to recreate his feat?

Well, yes. Sadly, people die every year while training for, or running or bicycling in, endurance races. But, it’s not many, and we don’t do it because we have a death wish.

I do, however, think reflections on our mortality are related to this endurance business. There is something about pushing one’s body to its limit, something about that feeling of having nothing else left to give, that approaches pure worship of one’s Creator, that makes one feel more alive than at almost any other time. I say almost because, when an 83 year-old triathlete died of a stroke just one mile into a planned 75-mile bicycle ride, his wife remarked, “Well, at least he died while doing his second-favorite activity.”

Dr. Kenneth Cooper calls that (staying fit until sudden death) rounding off the curve at the end of life.

The vast majority of endurance athletes of all levels will live longer healthier lives than we would have otherwise. There is beauty in the paradox: pushing ourselves to what feels close to death yields not just a deep appreciation of life, not just a longer life, but an exuberance for all the other elements of life. It produces gratitude and appreciation for those we love, for a day of beautiful weather, for meaningful work, or for weather so lousy it forces us to rest when we need it. With the help of endorphins, we can catch a glimpse of that promised day when death is no more.

Sure, some of it may be purely chemical, endorphins and all that, but material reductionism does not delegitimize the spiritual experience of shaking our fist in the face of death.

Love, after all, has an evolutionary value. That does not mean it is not real and meaningful.

Death-defiance is not the same thing as death denial. Affirming the value of life, grabbing hold of it and squeezing the life out of every minute of every day celebrates the wondrous gift of living, breathing, and cogitating.

As much as anything, and here is the literary part, we live a metaphor. Whether it is a cliché or an archetype, we continue to find meaning in it. We run with perseverance the race that is before us.

I once heard a church consultant suggest that our leave-taking during life, whether from a party, from a job, or from a relationship, will predict how we will die. If we tend to leave a party slowly, saying goodbye to everyone, starting for the door, and then returning several times because we forgot to say something, we will, he suggested, probably die the same way, lingering a while until people are quite ready for us to get out the door already. On the other hand, if we wave to our host from across the room and then skedaddle, that suggests we will may die suddenly and without warning.

I have no idea if he was right, and I don’t know that the author of that article thought his theory would bear scrutiny; mostly, it was a provocative way to encourage people to pay attention to goodbyes.

I have wondered recently if marathon-running may serve as a metaphor for how we will live the rest of our lives.

Do we have the patience and discipline to run with perseverance the race for which we are trained, or do we tend to let someone else set a pace for us, to our detriment? Do we overestimate our ability at the beginning, hit a wall halfway through and never recover? Or, do we underestimate and never run as solid a race as we are capable of if we put more of ourselves into it?

Any metaphor can be pushed beyond usefulness, but this one, running with perseverance the race that is set before us, continues to yield spiritual treasure.

Neill Morgan is a Presbyterian Church U.S.A. minister and an aging triathlete. You can read his articles and follow his training and travails at mortalironman.com.  If you would like to receive these articles each week by email, click here.

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