“Do you feel the mood of the city around you change according to events, and how does it affect you?” A runner recently posed this query to a Reddit Running group in light of Hurricane Harvey’s widespread destruction across the city of Houston, Texas, and the surrounding areas. The user followed this remark with a personal account of his or her visit to Houston to help a friend rebuild what was leveled in the storm. “More head nods in Houston than usual, and people seemed resilient, but there was fear and sadness as well,” said the runner before others began to weigh in with their experiences and the accompanying emotions in the comments.
Respondents spoke of September 11, 2001; of the financial crisis and subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers and the federal bailout of banks in 2008; the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; and, just recently, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, the latter of which ransacked Florida. Events like this do little but bring sadness to the forefront of our minds as the overwhelming presence of loss takes its heavy toll. Tears fall, grief is embraced, and the rebuilding, both literal and spiritual, commences. What’s a runner to do in times like these?
For reasons still unknown to me, I tend to internalize disaster and be deeply affected by those who experience loss. I suspect that empathy for others might be what’s at work here, and perhaps its also why the immortal words of English poet John Donne cascade through my mind like a crashing wave. In his 1624 work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, he writes in Meditation XVII, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Like others, I recognize the physical benefits of running regularly, but allowing it to transform my mental state is an ongoing process. I wouldn’t go as far as classifying it as depression, but I do have a melancholy way about me at times. According to a 2011 American Psychological Association (APA) article, research is revealing that exercise can help people alleviate the effects of depression. “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” said James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.
In spite of the sporadic sadness I feel as I mull over the brevity and brokenness of life, I’ve never regretted a run as a means to transport me from reality for an hour or so to listen in on nature or commune with the Creator as the miles unfold and the rhythm of each footfall sinks deep into my bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles. When those sixty minutes or more conclude, and the quick pace lessens to a walk as the house driveway comes into view once again, I know without hesitation that something happened out there on the roads – and I feel markedly different.
Some call it the mysterious “runner’s high,” but I call it one more instance of self-discovery, an unveiling of who I am as a man through the lens of a cardiovascular faith. I don’t always like what I see, so in recognizing this there comes a realization: spiritual formation, like running, is an ongoing journey. I’m reminded of the ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, widely known in the running community for his epic feats of endurance. “Runs end. Running doesn’t,” says Karnazes. A single run may be amazing or abysmal, but running, the continuous pursuit of exploring every hill and dale and crook and crag that line the communities around us, is perpetual. Running is perpetual.
Throughout the years, I’ve come across tees and singlets that read, “Running is cheaper than therapy.” There’s certainly a time and place for a therapist when circumstances in life warrant such a visit, but running is a surefire way to purposefully process the events of life when it’s just you and the roads and the trails. Anger, sadness, regret, angst – in short, pain – are all wrestled down from point A to point B. Music often aids me in this journey as it has an uncanny ability to mirror my emotions, but I will say that one emotion never enters my mind at the completion of a run, regardless of distance or performance.