My running shoes left footprints in the damp earth as I headed up the trail. I sucked in the delicious mountain air – a rich blend of wild herbs, flowers, fresh grass, and trees. Easy conversation and laughter spilled out as my friends and I traversed over moss-covered rocks and exposed tree roots. Angled sunlight sashayed across the path.
My heart soared.
There was always something around the bend to discover—a grove of ferns, a cluster of lavender lupine, perhaps even a collection of cows wandering the hillside. I was like a kid in an ice cream shop sampling all the flavors. I simply couldn’t get enough.
One of my mama friends invited me to go on my first trail run a few months after my husband went to Heaven in 2014. I had been an athlete and runner most of my life, but focused on neighborhood jogs and training for road races. Trail running in the hills of Central California opened up a kaleidoscope of experiences and engaged my mind, body, and soul in new ways.
I will never get over the wonder of the wildflowers chasing around each curve in spring or the rainbow sherbet colors of the sunrise dancing over the mountains in the distance. As David reminds us in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (ESV). I’ve never seen God’s glory more on display. On the trails, I’ve learned to take off my competitive cloak and simply savor the journey.
These days it’s not uncommon to hear people say running is their therapy. I don’t believe running can ever take the place of actual sessions with a therapist, but I’ve found it to be therapeutic. Running has become a spiritual practice that ushers me into a sense of wholeness. While some may use running or exercise as a way to escape their problems, I’ve found that running helps me process my pain and circle back to God.
Tending to the Body
Studies show that running has all kinds of physical benefits. It builds muscles, helps you sleep better, releases endorphins, increases energy, and even improves mood. I’ve found this to be true, especially when trail running. I feel suddenly alive and infused with new energy when I’m running through God’s Creation.
It doesn’t matter how fast or slow I’m running. I can feel it in my bones. The iconic Olympian Eric Liddell depicted in the movie “Chariots of Fire” said that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure. Of course, I’m a 40-something remarried widow with three daughters who writes and speaks for a living. I’m not sprinting across any finish lines that will land me on an Olympic podium. I’m just tending to my body, putting in the daily miles to care for this temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
And that’s sacred work too.
Engaging the Mind
Most of us have been navigating a global pandemic for more than two years now. I’ve found that running outside was a welcome reprieve during periods when we were “sheltering at home” or isolating from others. I found I needed the practice of running just as much for my mental health as I did for my physical health.
Something that is “therapeutic” can have a healing effect, causing someone to feel happier, more relaxed, more focused. On my darkest days after my husband’s death and through this pandemic, I ran. And running helped me lean into the pain and grief in a way that kept me from feeling like I was drowning.
My friend who is a therapist says moving our bodies helps dislodge traumatic memories that are stuck in the brain. For some it might be dancing or walking or yoga, but this unscripted movement helps us move forward.
I also found that running is an opportune time to allow Scripture to renew my mind as it talks about in Romans 12:2. Through the years, I have memorized Bible passages and these run through my mind as I am running on the trails.
During training for my first marathon, I worked on memorizing Acts 20:24, which says, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (NIV).
This verse frequently pops into my mind whenever I feel tired while running or overwhelmed by a situation. The words often help me reframe a situation and feel renewed energy to get to the finish line.
Caring for the Soul
I’ve found running is much more than self-care; it’s soul care.
I practice something called prayer running. It’s basically listening to God and processing with him while I run. I start with a gratitude mile—grounding myself in the present and calling out the tangible things I notice around me. I thank him for the ballet pink petals of the peonies and the cadence of my own breath. It ebbs and flows like ocean waves.
Sometimes I cry out in confusion. Other times I bring my doubts and questions. Like the psalmists, my prayers often come out in the shape of lament. Over the miles, I recall his faithfulness through other seasons. I sing praises with my steps.
Through running, I’ve learned the nuance between loneliness and solitude. I’ve discovered what it feels like to commune with my Creator.
I imagine when Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10, ESV) this is what he meant.
Today I live a life that is more abundant and whole than I ever expected it could be after losing my first husband. There isn’t any magic to it—only the deep work I’ve done putting one foot in front of the other with God as my pacer on life’s trail.