Why I Love to Run

I've sat down with my computer several times in recent days to write a post about my new love of, and obsession with, running.  While words often come to me quickly, I've had a hard time writing about running, and each of those draft blogposts have ended up in the pixel dustbin.  My new discipline is not terribly profound, and I haven't much insightful to say about it.  I'm a pastor, but I find myself uninspired to write spiritual or theological words about my almost-daily, pre-dawn routine of running solo.  I just love running for how it makes me feel, and I'm not sure that Jesus or metaphysics or great insights are to be drawn to or from it – or, at least, I'm not sure that I'm the person to draw such insights.

[Well, I've tried to be thoughtful and theological about my running in a few past posts, including Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning, about skipping church to run the Army Ten Miler, and The Kingdom of God is Like a 10K Race, a parable about running that I imagined coming from the mouth of Jesus.]

I just love running, plain and simple.

My running obsession was fueled this week by a few post-run weigh-ins that measured my mass at 216 pounds – far less than the 235-240 pounds I was carrying around just a few months ago.  At 6 feet tall, I still have a ways to go, but I'm making progress.  Even at my 18 year-old fitest, I was one of the heavier (yet one of the faster) runners on my track team at 169 pounds.  I'd be thrilled to get down to 200 pounds these days.  But I've already made some good progress.  My belt buckle is joining forces with new belt holes to keep my oversized pants up, and the number of chins on my face is reducing.  It's a great change.

Besides looking better – if I do say so myself – I feel better, too.  I can run up the stairs without getting winded.  I feel better at the end of the day these days than I did at the end of a day several months ago.  I have more energy, even as I expend much more energy.

But I'm enjoying the workouts themselves, and not just the results of those workouts.  I find running alone for an hour or two to be wonderfully freeing.  Just me and my thoughts, and the world around me.  Some people say they get bored on their long runs.  Not me.  I run through wonderful parks and across streets, alongside an interstate and, increasingly, nearby national monuments.  I see people and observe wildlife.  I notice poorly shoveled sidewalks and spy planets peeking out of the dark morning sky.  I watch the sun rise, and I hear Metro trains rattle into town.  I work on sermons and think back to long lost friends.  I replay discussions and make plans for Sunday School.  I listen to my body and worry if I dressed appropriately for the weather.

I also love the physical challenge.  Though I don't often press too hard or push myself to the limits, I like trying to improve my pace, run longer distances, and pile up miles day after day, week after week.  In the I-climbed-the-mountain-because-it-was-there category, I like the challenge of training for a marathon simply because the 26.2 miles are there, taunting me to run them.  I get my butt kicked by long training runs … and then the next week I tack another mile on to my long run, just to stick it to the run from the week before.

I love to run, simply for the space, the adrenelin, the fitness, and the feel-good it gives me.  Not the deepest words I've ever posted on this blog, but perhaps the better things in life aren't always honest or deep … simply great experiences that causes one to give thanks to God.

Oops.  There I went, drawing God into this after all.  But somehow, even if my eyes aren't entirely open to seeing it in theological clarity, I think He was there the whole time.

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." – Hebrews 12:1-2

Running on the Dreadmill

I have really enjoyed my return to running.  In the past two months I have run in the Army Ten Miler and in the Richmond Half Marathon.  I'm no speed demon, but I run and I finish, and with that I am quite pleased.  In my post-half-marathon runner's high, and as motivation to keep running during the cold, dark winter months, I signed up for the National Marathon on March 26.  Morning runs are now part of my routine several days per week, and I look forward to my runs as one of my favorite parts of the day.

However, here in Washington DC we are having an unusually cold start to the winter, and my willingness to run in the predawn darkness when the temperature hovers around 20° is being tested (my friends from colder climates are probably laughing at me right now!).  I have a flexible schedule and live next door to my office, so I've been known to adjust my work schedule so that I can run in the middle of the day, when the temperature soars to a balmy 35°.

Of course, the other option is to go to the nearby gym and use the dreadmill, ahem, the treadmill.  The treadmill is that dreadfull device that, though located in a climate controlled environment where the temperature is approximately 68°, provides you with a running experience like no other.  There is no wind on your face, and you don't actually go anywhere. There is no scenery passing by, no puddles to jump, no birds or squirrels crossing your path, no trail alongside a rushing creek.  The sounds you hear are of grunts dropping weights, friends chit-chatting, and the bad radio station the gym manager has decided to play that day.  As someone who enjoys the many facets of outdoor running, the treadmill is just dreadfull.

Screen shot 2010-12-08 at 7.00.48 AMAnd then there is the pace.  When we run outdoors, we run at a pace that is influenced my multiple factors, both physiological and environmental.  For amateurs like me – and perhaps for more elite runners, too? – pace is not perfectly consistent.  At right is a chart showing my pace over a recent 8 mile run.  While I ran a fairly consistent pace for the 8 miles – my splits ranged from 8:40 to 9:00 – as you can see, my pace within those miles varied to some degree.  What created those pace spikes and drops?  Street crossings, uphills and downhills, fiddling with my hat and gloves, playing with my stride, getting warmed up, accomodating that little kink in my ankle that pops up from time to time … any number of factors contribute to pace variations.

You don't get that kind of variation when running on a treadmill.  The pace is established by the machine, which runs a consistent pace without variation.  Surely you can program the treadmill to simulate a course or a workout, with various hill simulations or pace increases or decreases, but it doesn't allow your legs and body to run with the natural pace variation it might otherwise want or need to.  You either run the machine's pace, or you get flung off the machine.  Take your choice.

I know that I might succumb to the treadmill soon enough, especially if the unusually cold temperatures remain.  My gym is open 24-hours, and there is only so much schedule-juggling that I can do to accomodate my preference to run when the temperature peaks higher than 25°.  And I might yet learn to run in the predawn darkness with temps in the teens or single digits.   But I'm preparing for what might be the inevitable – and dreadful – decision to get on the treadmill and run.  Wish me luck.

UPDATE: A helpful article from Active.com, Treadmill Training for Winter Fitness.

Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.

Doctor’s Orders: No Running for Four Weeks

Earlier this spring I returned to running for the first time in 17 years (thanks to the wonderful Couch-to-5K running plan). I began losing weight and feeling better about myself, but most importantly I just really enjoyed running. After a little while my days felt incomplete without a run, and during the day my mind would often wander to thinking about my next run. I can't overstate what my return to running has meant to me. I even blogged about the joy of getting reacquainted with running. It's been an amazing, life-giving experience.

Thus I can't overstate how disappointed I am that, on doctor's orders, I've been shut down for four weeks.  No running, he said.  Get on your bike instead.

But I'm a runner. Not a biker.

You see, by early August I was getting comfortable running 7+ miles twice/week. My last long run was an 8-miler to the Washington Monument on August 9.  After a day of rest, I went for a short 4-miler on August 11, but didn't even last 2 miles.  I felt a shooting pain in my left shin, and a throbbing pain in my right. After feeling this horrible pain on another run following several days of rest, I went to the doctor, who told me to stop running for two weeks.  Two weeks came and went, and I went out for two short runs – 1.5 miles – on Monday and Tuesday of this week.  While I felt better, the sharp pain persisted in my left shin.  And so I called the doctor back, and that's when he gave me the four-week extension to my running moratorium.

I went to the running store last week, before the call to my doctor, and in hopeful anticipation of a cautious return to running this week. The guy at the store looked at my shoes – purchased in May at another running store – and said, "they're shot." "But they have less than 200 miles on them," I said. He then told me that they had a 180 lb limit (I weigh, ahem, a bit more than that), and that he himself had prematurely blown through a few pairs of this brand.  So while I don't want to blame my current predicament entirely on a poor choice of shoes, there's part of me that wants to find the guy who sold me those shoes and have a word or two with him.

Well, I bought new running shoes, the pair I wore on my two short runs earlier this week. They feel great, and hopefully I'll be running with them in a month or so.

So my hopes and plans to run the Army Ten Miler in October and the Richmond Half Marahon in November are shot.  For even if my shins feel great after four weeks, there is no way that I could get my body ready for the Ten Miler in less than a month, or for the Half Marathon in about five or six weeks.  These goals are now out of reach. For this year, anyway.

So today or tomorrow I'll take my bike to the shop, get it tuned up, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes bicycling. And tomorrow I'll go to the gym for a training session to learn how to use the machines properly, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes the gym. Let me be clear: I'm not the kind of guy who really likes cycling or the gym. Bikes and gyms don't come close to matching the simplicity and purity of running. Cycling is complicated – special shoes, helmet, gloves, and a bicycle with hundreds of parts, riding on busy roads or crowded paths where you've got to dodge pedestrians, runners, and cars, stop for cross traffic, and so forth. The gym is equally compliclated – what machines to use, how to use them, what is the proper weight? – not to mention the stale, sweaty air inside.  Running is so much more straight forward – strap on your shoes and run according to some plan. Running is the only kind of fitness I've ever really liked or enjoyed. Running is so meaningful for me (see that blogpost I referenced earlier). Shifting gears is going to be hard.

Well, this is the test, isn't it, to see if I'm so dedicated to this running thing (and to my general fitness) that I'll do anything – even ride a bike and do gym workouts – to get my body ready for an eventual return to running? I hope and pray that I can do this. I may even come to like it. But like it or not, it's my only option.

Getting Reacquainted with Running

I haven't exercised much since 1993, the year I graduated from high school and won a state gold medal in the 4×800 meter relay.  Sure, I have purchased gym memberships and bike equipment, but I haven't used either much, except perhaps for the few months of biking I did just prior to my October 2002 wedding.  I gained weight, got warnings from doctors about borderline blood pressure and high cholesterol, and purchased larger-sized pants.  I haven't done much of anything to return to any semblance of the athlete I was in high school.

To be clear, I know that I'll never run a 4:23 mile or a 16:30 5K ever again.  And I'll never weigh in at 169 pounds, my high school weight, again (at 6' tall and a big frame, I was one of the biggest runners on my team).  And I'll never win a gold medal in anything again.  And I'm OK with that … now.  But that wasn't always the case.

You see, for me – someone who experienced significant success as a runner in high school – the past has been an amazing deterrent to my attempts to keep fit.  I think the past can do that to many men.  In recent years when I've gone out running I've felt dejected that what was so easy in the past had become so difficult, and I quickly lost patience and confidence.  The framed gold medal and photo of my relay team hanging on the wall was simultaneously a source of great pride and of great shame – Look at what I once did!  But wow, look at me now.

I think I've turned a page, however.  Since Easter my wife and I have been running again.  We started slowly, with the Couch to 5K training program.  [When I say slowly, I mean slowly – the first week of workouts consist of 60 seconds of jogging followed by 90 seconds of walking, for 20 minutes.]  We ran our first 5K on May 29, and now I'm up to running 4-5 miles on training runs three days/week.  Though when I'm running my mind and my body remember what it was like to run 17-20 years ago – and that experience surely helps me today – I'm quite happy these days with distance runs that come in at a 9:30 pace, rather than the 6:00 or faster pace I often ran on such runs in high school.

What made me commit to running now?  People, specifically my wife, a few friends, and many strangers.  It all started when a couple from church invited me to sign up for the Army Ten Miler in October, knowing that I was looking to get back into shape.  And since the race registration last year filled up in less than a week – and that's for 30,000 runners! – I didn't have much time to mull it over.  I said yes, got online, and signed me and my wife up for the run.  Then I joined the Couch to 5K page on Facebook, and was excited to post my updates on the page after each workout, and read how others were doing with the plan.  Finally, I joined DailyMile.com, a social network for runners, cyclists, and triathletes.  Sharing workouts, receiving advice and encouragement, and "meeting" other runners has been a great help for me as I've stepped up my running since May.

What does all this mean?  Like many people my age, and particularly many pastors, I am overweight and out of shape.  Getting reacquainted with a long-lost passion of mine has been a gift from God, for all kinds of reasons.  I am working on my health and investing time and energy into something I love to do, a commitment which forces me to re-evaluate my priorities, from the foods I eat to the schedule I keep to the amount of work I'm willing to take on.

But perhaps most significant for me is the way that returning to running has allowed me to reconcile who I was with who I am.  For many years I've sort of written off my former running success, so irreconcilable was the memory of my "glory days" with the weight gain and fitness failure of my 20's and 30's.  And though I am not the runner that I once was, I am a runner again … and that alone makes me happy beyond belief.  I'm on the road to health and fitness, and am excited for the 10K and Ten Mile races I'm running in August and October.

Well, there's more to say about this, but it's time to go to bed.  I have a 5:00am alarm set to wake me up for my morning run.

Health Insurance for Clergy, for Church Employees, for All

The church is not immune to the health insurance crisis that is sweeping the nation.  From the worse-than-average health of clergy today to the huge ranks of retired clergy supported by church plans, the church is facing a crisis that pits the costs of health care against mission funding.  Today’s Washington Post has a nice article on this issue (Escalating Health-Care Costs Hit Churches: Insurance for Pastors Draining the Coffers), including a quote from John Kapanke, president of the ELCA’s Board of Pensions.

Particularly in this election season in which health care will be a major issue, we in the church should be involved in conversations about health care – both nationally and within our church, for the two are intimately connected.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).  Quality health care for all of God’s children is part of the abundant life God intends for us.  Let us work toward a future where heath care for all is no longer a dream, but the reality.

Life, Blog Updates

This weekend Northern Virginia is expecting an ice storm.  Oh, to live in a climate where rain is rain and snow is snow, and ice appears only in the freezer.  Oh well.  That’s not where I live.  The storm is supposed to be pretty bad – they’re calling for freezing rain to fall all day, on top of 1-2 inches of snow that will fall tonight.  Ice skating, anyone?

My lovely wife is sequestered in a hotel through Sunday, making a concerted and focused effort to get her (insert expletive here) dissertation done.  She is so close, but with a new full-time job and three children at home it is tough for her to find the time to write.

Two out of three kids in my family are sick enough to make sleeping difficult, but not sick enough for the doctor to be able to do anything for them.  Did I mention that my wife is in a hotel this weekend?

I’ve applied for copyright permission from Augsburg Fortress Publishers to use an amended form of Responsive Prayer on my new Daily Prayer Delivered blog.  A friend reminded me that I was probably violating copyrights by posting this material online, so I made my petition to my former co-workers at Augsburg Fortress.  I’ll let you know what they say to me.  (For a good, short plea for a new approach to copyrights and permissions for liturgical material, check out this post – The Church and Copyleft – from Father Chris, an Independent Catholic priest who was raised in the Lutheran Church.)

I’ve been dabbling with a custom theme on this blog, but Typepad doesn’t make it easy for amateurs like me.  If this blog looks funny to you, it’s entirely my fault.  But I’m tired and I’m not fixing it for a few days.  Here’s the banner I was toying with:

Banner44 Have a good weekend.  For all who are battling ice and snow, please be safe!