Monday, February 11, 2013

The "Awakened" Runner

Many running fanatics can look back and pin point a time when they had a “running awakening” - that is, a time when they went from non-runner to runner. I was reading Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man, and was drawn into the part where he describes his all night 30th birthday 30-mile running awakening. He describes it in an almost spiritual way, the same way that someone would describe their sudden realization of who God is. People refer to this as a testimony.

You see, after growing up in a Christian home, going to many Christian camps, and even working at a Christian camp for 3 years, I’ve heard a lot of testimonies. If you do not consider yourself a spiritual person or if you are spiritual of a different nature, don’t stop reading. You won’t get preached at. Consider this an opportunity to get a peek inside what it is like to be a part of the (sometimes strange) world of Christian families/community.

When you boil it down, most testimonies follow a basic formula: I was lost and now I’m found. The most compelling stories usually involve the storyteller being mired down in some sort of “sin” and then they realized that what they once enjoyed had enslaved them. In their discontentment they cry out and they get an answer. Sometimes people really like to amp up their “sins” because it makes for a good story.

These kind of stories always seemed to get under my skin. It wasn’t because of the actual story; I was glad these people had found more fulfillment in their life. It was because, after hearing these stories, I felt like no one would want to hear mine and it felt odd trying to compile a list of bad things I had done just show that I had really “lived.” After growing up in a Christian family, there had never been a time in my life where I didn’t have an understanding of who God was.

And, furthermore, I seemed to have come out of the womb as a people pleaser (some probably call me a suck up). The truth is, I just want to bring happiness to others. I felt uncomfortable in bars because guys would always talk me with the wrong idea and I would feel bad rejecting them because, after all, I was a girl in a bar. So I never really got into partying. I hated that people thought I wasn’t spontaneous.

Similarly after reading Dean’s story of being a drinking yuppy whose life was redeemed through running, I felt like my story wasn’t that great. I don’t remember ever not being a runner. In middle school we would run the mile in gym class as a fitness test twice a year and the gym teacher would put the top 3 boys and girls on a board. I always HAD to be on that board. As I grew up, I never gave up running because I felt like my body was the one thing that I could control. That was probably why I never experimented with drugs or alcohol. Why give up control of the one thing that is yours?

And then I started realizing how my spiritual story and running story are very similar. As a kid I never felt like I belonged because I didn’t have any Christian friends and the few Christians I knew weren’t very nice to me. Though the non-Christian friends that I had cared about me, they knew I was different. Similarly, when I ran Cross-Country I never really felt accepted. I ran Varsity freshman year but when I had anxiety issues before races, I felt like no one on my team was there to encourage me, they were just ready to take my spot.

Even though I quit competing I never stopped running, I probably ran more. And even though my family didn’t regularly attend church, I never stopped believing in God. I pretty much ignored him for a  few years, but that’s another story. I guess when I went to college I had some experiences and friendships that renewed my excitement in both God and running, but I can’t really find a specific moment when I was “awakened.”

I remember the first time I heard about an ultramarathon. I had a friend, Ami Hutchinson, who was in the room next to me my freshman year in the dorms. She was also a Christian AND a runner. Crazy world! We became fast friends but we were maybe a little too much alike. Sometimes when you meet someone who has the same problems you have, the more you talk about those problems, the more you push each other apart. We were both going to work at camp in Colorado that summer, but only I went and after I got back we just didn’t hang out much. Something I regret to this day.

Anyways, we got together a few years back and as we sipped coffee at my favorite Madison coffee shop, she told me about two things: That she didn’t believe in God anymore and that she had decided to run her first ultramarathon and won. As she told me about running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in Wisconsin, I became fascinated that a person could run that far. The farthest I had run at that point was eight miles, and after my first summer in Colorado, living along the 105-mile Rainbow Trail, I was just starting to get into trail running.

I didn’t amp up my miles right away. I didn’t have time and it wasn’t as much a priority to take time from other things to give to running. When I went back to camp, though, I had these great spiritual experiences while running and I tried to recreate them when I went home. They could only be recreated on the trail and the Kettles became a refuge to me. And since then, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, which pretty much parallels my relationship with God.

The irony is that’s how I like my running... lots of ups and downs. Road races start with a bang and are filled with miles of flat pavement. Trail races, well, I’ve had experiences where I didn’t even realize the race had started. And then the course is broken up into distinct sections characterized by terrain. And that’s my story. Mountains and valleys, parts where I took things slow and parts where things progressed quickly. Nothing particularly exciting, but things were always moving forward.

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