This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine Issue 4, Volume 4: Unexpected Fulfillment issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

Just before the gun signals the start of the 2015 Boston Marathon, America’s elite marathoners toe the starting line in the rural town of Hopkinton, MA, prepared to push their bodies west over 26.2 miles. The US men stand elbow to elbow with the East Africans and know they don’t stand a chance. I soon discovered that no amount of neon accouterments could make me run faster or with less pain. But, surprisingly, in that pain I found something else entirely: an experience with God. This isn’t pessimism; it’s the facts. Out of the stacked elite field, which includes a former world record holder (Kenyan Patrick Makau, 2:03:38) and two past Boston winners (Ethiopians Lelisa Desisa and Gebregziabher Gebremariam, both sub-2:05), no fewer than eleven athletes boast personal bests better than America’s fastest competitor (Dathan Ritzenhein, 2:07:47). In fact, Ritzenhein and Meb Keflezighi, last year’s winner in 2:08:37, are the only Americans entered who have cracked the 2:10 mark. In contrast, thirteen international athletes have run sub 2:10 and five of those have run sub-2:05. These times help put into perspective America’s place in the distance running pecking order.

There is one American, however, a two-time Olympian, who has proven he can hang with the world’s best. He’s a tall, lanky 32 year-old who, it is often noted, resembles a surfer with his sun-bleached mop of hair and laid back attitude. His name is Ryan Hall, and to watch him run is to witness the mobile embodiment of grace, confidence, and strength. Just search Youtube for videos of Hall training. Better yet, search for videos of his performance from the 2011 Boston Marathon where he averaged a staggering 4 minutes 46 seconds per mile. Despite keeping that pace over a distance most of us consider a long car ride, he appears to actually be having fun, even engaging in call-and-response with the crowd lining the course while bounding toward Boylston street. That performance at Boston in 2011 was particularly special because Hall finished with a time of 2:04:58, becoming the fastest American ever to run a marathon and the first, and still only, American to break 2:05. For American distance running fans, Hall’s performance was the harbinger of a career that would finally close the gap between the Americans and the East Africans. Olympic gold medals were within grasp. Even world records were a possibility.

But Hall won’t be found on Boston’s course this Patriots’ Day. He’ll still be recovering from a race a few weeks ago, the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon, which he dropped out of a bit shy of the halfway mark for reasons not clearly known. His DNF (the runners’ acronym for “did not finish”) was the latest in an extremely long series of disappointments, due primarily to injury. It’s a history of letdowns considering the high of Boston 2011. A brief sketch of his career since then includes a 2012 Olympic DNF, races he pulled out of prior to race day, a 2:17:50 last year at Boston, and the DNF last month. It’s also a history that’s been covered extensively in the press and on fan message boards alike. Hall’s is the kind of career that invites armchair coaching which dissects his training routine, his choice of coaches, his psychological state, and even his religious practice.

Hall is an evangelical Christian, and an outspoken one. His faith is the go-to staple in most narratives of his career. Last month’s profile of Hall in The New Yorker was the most recent account in which he describes the religious principles on which he bases his life. The New Yorker piece and many others like it (see this New York Times article from 2012) present Hall’s faith matter-of-factly, with little editorial commentary.

Yet each time I read pieces like those, I feel a bit frustrated at the way Hall’s faith ends up looking like an oddity, at best, and a hindrance to his performance as an athlete, at worst. On the other hand, perhaps any athlete who lists “God” as his official coach deserves any scrutiny he gets.

I’m a fan of Ryan Hall, and part of that is because we share the same faith. I’ll admit it irks me when I hear Christians gushing over professional athletes, pulling for them to succeed simply because those athletes kneel down in prayer after touchdowns or thank God in post-game interviews. This adulation never made sense to me. Take the Tim Tebow phenomenon. During his tenure on the turf I sensed a tacit agreement among some Christians in the corridors of churches and fellowship halls during donut hour that not to be on board with the Tebow-love was to commit some act of moral rebellion.

So when I admit that I hope Ryan Hall returns to his 2011 form because we share certain beliefs, know that I recognize my hypocrisy. But there is at least one difference between my interest in Ryan Hall and any I would have in Tim Tebow. I can actually go outside, right now if I wanted, and do what Hall does: I can run. It goes without saying that at 38 years old I have no access to what Tebow experiences in the huddle and on the field as 300-pound linemen chase him down. But I can catch a glimpse of what Hall feels as I make my way around my Brooklyn neighborhood on a pre-dawn morning. Maybe I can’t run as fast or as far as Hall. But I can put one foot in front of the other and experience the sensation of my body in movement.

It’s this shared experience that gives me a special relationship to Hall.

In the summer of 2013, I started running in earnest because I didn’t like the bloated fellow in the mirror. The first runs were short and painful—in my hips, my knees, my butt. I got blisters on my feet, and I chafed all over. I read online that I needed the right socks (the wicking kind for the blisters) and the right shoes (the stabilizing kind for the hips and knees). So off to the running store I went. When I arrived I found out I also needed the right shorts, the right shirts, and the right watch. I happily shelled out the cash for it all, believing there was a mystical connection between owning all the right gear and the transformation of my body.

I soon discovered that no amount of neon accouterments could make me run faster or with less pain. But, surprisingly, in that pain I found something else entirely: an experience with God. This wasn’t the fabled runner’s high, that ineffable feeling of euphoria. If anything, it was the opposite. I felt the real weight and limitations of my body. For the first time in decades I experienced my own physicality.

It was a simple thought that occurred to me as I plodded along on the asphalt: I’m a physical being. This ran counter to the life in “the cloud” most of us lead, where nothing but computer hardware remains physical. It also ran counter to a life full of sermons I’d absorbed that taught me to care for my soul, yet gave little credence to caring for my body. In recognizing my physical self I was able to acknowledge that God made me an embodied being and that it’s through this imperfect body that I interact with God. In other words, when I’m running and I reach that inevitable point where my body says “this is the end,” I recognize that place as the one where my experience with God begins. This is why I lace up my shoes every morning. This is why I jog out the door in the dark.

If anything is made clear in the New York Times profile of Hall, it’s that Hall views running as his opportunity to commune with God. Paraphrasing Hall, the article notes that “It is while running or thinking of running…that he feels most conversant and dependent on God.” It’s this kind of thinking that makes me feel that Hall is a fellow sojourner, and I’m rooting for my fellow sojourner to get back on the podium.

Cheering for Hall lately hasn’t been easy. But this isn’t because of his disappointments on the roads so much as it is his recently expressed attitude toward his career. Here’s a quote from Hall in The New Yorker piece leading up to the race in LA last month:

‘The level of joy I’m capable of experiencing now is not dependent on me winning the Olympic Games or me running 2:02 in the marathon,’ Hall said. ‘All it’s dependent on is how connected I am with God. I’m glad that it’s not exclusive. Winning the gold medal or winning the L.A. Marathon or whatever—one guy is going to do that, and everyone else is going to be disappointed.’

From a Christian perspective, from the perspective of most religions for that matter, this kind of non-circumstantially motivated view of life is the pinnacle of spiritual contentment. But do we really want this type of attitude from our athletes? Don’t we want them to care about winning at all costs? And isn’t it really only after winning that we’re glad to hear them affirm the faith we share? This tension highlights the complications of showing loyalty to an athlete simply because you both practice the same religion.

For my part, I wish Ryan Hall would show some competitive instinct and start winning races again, or at least acknowledge that losing is disappointing. I’m not certain how to relate Hall’s latest sentiments to my own running. Over the two years since I started running I’ve seen improvement in my performances, and I’ve acquired a bit of a competitive edge, competing mostly with myself, aiming for faster times and longer distances. Some time last year I even got it into my head that I wanted to run a marathon fast enough to qualify (in my age group) for the Boston Marathon, which I did. In my next marathon I want to run faster. I’m not sure what Hall would think of my growing appetite to succeed in the sport, and whether or not it interferes with my ability to experience God, but for now I long to improve, and if I can, win. I have miles to run and a spirit ready to encounter my limits.

(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)


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