Lent Post #24: Searching for Freedom: Running as Therapy

My in the spring of sophomore year of high school, I joined the track and field team and began running. Earlier that year, my life became a bit harder – I began to struggle in math, began to struggle to fit in socially, and began to struggle with what I now understand to be a close to 9 month long bout of depression. During this time, my lung function began to decline, my asthma began to get worse, and I began to feel just plain ick. On the surface, I had it all together: I was one of only two sophomores on the varsity field hockey team, a violinist in the pit orchestra, skiing on the varsity ski team and playing in an orchestra in music school. But underneath, I was frustrated, and looking for an outlet. 

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I wasn’t very good at it, but I just began to run. I put on a pair of shoes, went out my front door and began to run. The asthma made it near impossible, but walking turned into jogging, and jogging turned into running. Running became therapy during this time, a time when math was tearing my self-esteem apart, when a math teacher was telling me that my life’s self-worth and future potential was solely tied up in my 10th grade ability to understand geometry and complex equations. And to this day, while I still don’t understand either of those things, pounding the pavement for hours at a time solved the world’s problems. 

 

In college, running became a form of worship. Sunday mornings spent on the Mill River Trail with only the sound of my heavy breathing and the smacking of my trail sneakers against the crackling of crisp New England Fall leaves, and the clacking of river-smoothed stones, the sunrise lighting my way. Uttering soft prayers to God, occasionally singing a familiar hymn, these times were sacred – to my body, and to my soul. These runs were where I prayed and discerned my call to ministry, where I asked for clarity about my future, and when my health began to decline slowly, where I cried to God tears of sorrow, frustration, and sadness. Running was my sanctuary, my solace, and my therapist. My non-anxious, non-judgmental presence, my silent place to connect with God in the midst of the chatter and chaos of college. 

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Running in seminary tapered off for an obvious reason – health made it impossible. I ran a few 5Ks, and a 25K before my heart and lungs called my hours long therapy sessions quits. These sacred moments over, my body initially longed for solitary breaths in the woods, the sounds of creaking trees, of the whistling of the wind, the singing of the birds and the rising and setting of the sun. 

Running is more than just a physical activity, the building of muscles, a surge of endorphins, and just plain good for ya if you can do it physically. It can be a sacred moment – a form of “lectio,” a form of spiritual devotion, a bettering of the self God created, and a private moment between God and the created. Everyone does it differently, and not everyone loves running – I also truly loved cycling, and as I got sicker, cycling became the only form of exercise that I could do, but it could be Yoga, Pilates, swimming, boxing, football, Ultimate Frisbee, basketball. Therapy is therapy, and devotion is devotion, connecting with God prayerfully is one in the same and is just as personal as worship. 

But in the deepest of moments of exercise, in the middle of my run or ride, I felt the Holy Spirit, I felt God near to me, and if I came to the run troubled by a particular thing – a test, a paper, discernment over a job or internship, graduate school application or future movement – things felt just a bit less burdensome. In my run, I could lay down the emotional crosses I had carried along the way. 

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The work is difficult, running itself is not easy. The physical pain hurts: muscles ache, lungs burn, joints hurt, blisters form at rubbing points in my shoes. But the work is far more worth it, as every time I ran, I saw what scripture means when it describes that God created and breathed life into humanity. My runs breathed life into me in times that felt lifeless, that felt frustrating, sad, sorrowful, directionless, and everything in between. I would also run when I felt joyful, to thank God, to ask God for direction, for discernment, and to look for my path. 

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And now, with a path that is so very clear, knowing where I’m going, I am again in a place where running, or at least jogging is a possibility. Roses do not come without thorns, and my rose has not come without many, many thorns. I am finally able to catch a glimpse of being able to have my sacred sunrise gatherings with God on the river paths again, my footsteps echoing against the crackling leaves, my heavy breaths being filled by the cool spring air. I have reached what is defined as a decent enough point in my recovery that I can try jogging, so long as I monitor my symptoms and heart rate, which considering how far I’ve come in the last 14 months, seems like an answer to tear-stained prayers. I know that I’m lucky, and that this blessing could easily go away just as easily as it has come. But for now, I will enjoy my jaunts in the woods with God, and my prayers will be tear-filled words of joy and praise that my maker has walked thus far with me, and has made my path leaf- and stone-covered, rather than one paved with silver and gold. 

Thanks be to God. 

 

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