The Church of the Sunday Long Run?

I am proud to belong to a certain tribe: the tribe of runners. Many of my closest friends are there; some I see as a sort of family. Many of us are steely, determined, even stubborn people. Many of us have had to fight, and continue to fight, through injuries and setbacks; but, generally, when we are knocked down, we come back – and often come back stronger.

Like all groups, runners have traditions; we could even go so far as to call them rituals or religions. I have had cause to reflect on one such practice recently: the (Sunday) long run.

For the uninitiated, many runners designate one day – in the UK, generally Sunday[1] – as the day for the longest run of the week. It constitutes an opportunity to build the aerobic base and to benefit from greater recovery than is often possible during the week. For example, my weekly running schedule ideally involves the following:[2] easy running on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; more intense sessions on Tuesday and Saturday; a rest day on Friday; and a long run on Sunday: generally, an hour or more (8+ miles). Others go a lot further and longer.

There will normally be at least one occasion on Sunday where I flick through Strava (the social media for runners and cyclists[3]) on my phone and see what my running friends have been doing that day and dish out some kudos for runs that are often lengthier and quicker than mine. There is, however, one increasingly regular phenomenon on there on Sunday, about which I have mixed feelings and want to think about here: describing the Sunday long run as church.

This has been accentuated by a recent challenge on Strava entitled “Tracksmith Church of the Long Run”. The first part of the description reads:

‘The long run is a weekly ritual that encourages us to reflect on where we are today and where we want to be in the future. It’s an introspective, centring experience – that’s why we call it Church of the Long Run.’

The parallels between the long run and church are immediately obvious: it is described as a “ritual”, an opportunity to “reflect”, a “centring experience” – all of which evoke devotional and spiritual practices. Yet, do these parallels tell the whole story?

Do I wish to denigrate running and the practice of the Sunday long run? By no means. From a physical point of view, it is an important part of the training cycle. Runners need to be wise to their own limits, but a consistent longer run each week pays dividends in a variety of disciplines. The long run can also have social benefits. The description above describes it as an “introspective” experience, which can be true. I probably do more long runs alone these days: Sundays are generally busier than they used to be for various reasons, and I still need to be careful about not getting sucked into too much mileage and getting injured. That said, like many, I still often enjoy the social aspect of the long run. I have had many deep and fascinating discussions on long runs. The social aspect is closer to the true meaning of church. The Greek word, ekklēsia, which has come to be translated in most religious contexts as “church”, more basically denotes any form of gathering or assembly. The notion of an assembly or church of Sunday long runners has merit.

Perhaps most importantly, running is so helpful from a mental perspective, as the description shows. I remember the day when, as a ten-year-old coming back from a cross-country race, a teacher explained the science of endorphins, which resonated with me – much to the bemusement of some of my peers on the bus! In the many years that I have been able to run, running has always helped me gain some perspective on issues. In recent years where life’s challenges have been greater and anxiety levels have often risen, it has often refreshed me. I can, therefore, partly go along with the idea of a centring experience.

I think there is a danger, however, that this all becomes too individualistic. Church is inherently other-focused – focused on God – not only individualistic, centred in on the self. The apostle Paul captured something of this sentiment towards the beginning of his letter to the Romans when he talked about how people turned away from worshipping God: “they worshipped the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The long run in beautiful creation can still be an act of worship, but, as I know and realise in my own life, an obsession with running can lead to an attitude of glorying in my own achievements and thinking that it’s all about me.

Another thing to consider is that running might not always be there for us: for every runner who is injured, there is one on the side-lines. I know that if I become too reliant on the Sunday long run as the principal means of centring myself, when injury strikes, this might be difficult. My belief is that the Creator, God, is always there for us: our circumstances might change, but God does not. There is a contemporary Christian song with the words: “You never stop loving us, no matter how far we run”. Of course, this talks about a tendency to run away from the Father like the prodigal son ran away from his father; but when I was injured for two years, I saw a new meaning in these words: even if I can’t run, I am still loved. For Christians, this is often most easily remembered within the context of Church. The Church of God will always be there for us; the church of the long run might not always be.

Consequently, when I see people from my running tribe posting about the long run as being church, even if it is a little facetious, I occasionally feel aggrieved. I feel a bit like the apostle Paul, when he starts to reflect on why his own people, the Jews, have not all accepted Christ as the Messiah:

“There is great grief and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I would wish to be cursed (literally, anathema) by Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters, for my kinspeople according to the flesh, who are the Israelites…” (Romans 9:2-3, my translation)

It is an attitude that is rather puzzling, and so, continues to generate debate among scholars. It is perhaps somewhat dramatic of Paul to say that he would be distanced – maybe even cut off – from Christ for the sake of his fellow Jews. The main message, however, is that he is aggrieved that people descending from the Israelites, God’s chosen people, who have enjoyed the greatest privileges, have not put their allegiance in Jesus Christ.

So, too, I am sorry when some of my running friends miss out on what I feel are the benefits of faith, to use some of the language from the verses that follow in Romans 9:4-6: adoption into the spiritual family of God where love is unconditional; promises of an eternity with Christ, based on his death and resurrection.

My 2019/20 cross-country season was probably my best ever. I remain thankful for that. More regular Sunday long runs, admittedly quite often alone, but occasionally with fellow runners, were a significant part of that.[4] I am fortunate that I can currently easily run and attend a great church that supports Christians in the world of sport on Sunday. I am mindful, however, that commitments might change in the future. There are certainly informative parallels to be drawn between the church of the long run and the Church, but there are differences too. Such differences serve as a reminder and challenge to me to ensure that the Church where Christ is worshipped remains the priority, no matter how far I run or don’t run on a Sunday.

[1] Although not always: I would imagine in majority Muslim countries (e.g. Dubai), another day of the week (e.g. Saturday) would be more likely. When I lived in France and the church I attended was some distance away by bus and only held a morning service, I changed my weekly pattern to Saturday long run.

[2] Some people run as many as three sessions a week. I have long abided by the wise words that I have heard attributed to a legendary coach, Phil O’Dell: “Two sessions and long run: safe fun; three sessions and burn-up: out of luck.”

[3] See my blog here about my decision to give Strava up for Lent one year: https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/giving-up-strava-for-lent-mostly/

[4] Although perhaps the weekly famous Pollard float sessions on the meadows of Edinburgh have had an even greater impact!

2 thoughts on “The Church of the Sunday Long Run?

  1. Alex,
    Great blog, I have to confess i wasnt sure why the long run was being called Church by so many, this helps to clear it up.
    I share so many of your sentiments about the benefits of running, but I too am acutley aware of the temptation for my realtionship with running to come between me and my saviour.
    Running in God’s creation is a wondeful privelidge but so important to worship the creator and not the creation.

    Glad you have enjoyed such a successful season, and i agree the Pollard float sessions certainly pay dividends on race days.

    Catch you at a session soon enough.

    Paul

    Like

    1. Paul, thanks so much for reading, encouraging, and for your perspectives too!

      I think for most, calling the SLR “church” is a bit of fun/banter, but it does raise the question. It struck me last night on hearing Psalm 51 preached that forgiveness is experienced most powerfully in the context of Church.

      Keep up the great running – literally and metaphorically!

      Alex

      Like

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