One Dirty Magazine
Could Trail Running Be Your Church? Photo by Corky Dean.

Could Trail Running Be Your Church?

Running and religion have more in common than we may realize.

Christian Hawley May 18th, 2017

MacGyver, my four-year-old mutt, rides shotgun on this twenty-degree East Tennessee morning. As the mountains flash by in shadow and sunburst, I half expect him to turn to me and whisper some ancient wisdom.

He doesn’t; so I whisper to myself, “Eat your heart out, Jack London.”

We arrive at a small park off Interstate 26—three parking spaces and a bathroom. This simple Sunday picnic area is actually one of the best trail runs in the Appalachians. But no other cars join us in the parking lot on this late November morning. Mac quivers with excitement as I turn off the truck. My legs tingle in simpatico.

The Pinnacle Mountain Trail is a nine-mile out-and-back—or, more precisely, a nine-mile up-and-down. We start up the trail, and I take off Mac’s leash. Motion and silence bind us in the eternal now.

A mile, a minute, a paw, a foot, the crystals of ice and snow … everything vibrates at the same natural frequency.

At the top of the mountain, I climb up the old fire tower.

Mac looks puzzled, but lets me go. From the highest platform I survey mountains, valleys, creeks and rivers spread out below. Everything makes sense. Even the scars of pavement look like they belong.

“This is my church,” I whisper to myself. Truer words I have never felt. A poorer statement I have never uttered.

 

A different kind of church

In addition to being a trail runner, I am also an Episcopal priest. The two greatest sources of truth in my life are my interactions with nature and the sacraments. Yet for most of my life those two relationships have been cast at odds with one another.

When Sunday mornings roll around, most of my friends go to the mountains, while a few of us journey to church. We are two groups of people, both searching for a touch of the divine, immanent and transcendent, one breaking free of structures and the other finding peace in holy order; one announcing, “Ultrarunning is a journey to find the soul,” the other declaring, “Christ is the way, the truth and the life.”

Seven years ago I spent a summer studying Buddhism in Nepal, where I witnessed monks reading sacred texts in caves and faith communities climbing mountains to offer prayers. For those Tibetan Buddhists on the move, faith interpreted nature and nature informed faith. My hope and call ever since has been to help Christianity in North America re-discover that same kind of relationship. We need to feel small. We need to recognize we are part of something grander, and bridge the ever widening gap between a vague spirituality focused on the self, and Bible idolatry obsessed with a calcified point-of-view.

 

Finding connection on the trail

On an early spring morning in west Texas, I strap on a headlamp to start up Sheep Pen Canyon trail in Davis Mountains State Park. This kind of darkness and cold is unknown to the civilized world, apart from the desert and the poles.

This kind of footing…well, this kind of footing is shit; rocks one moment and sand the next. No wonder the Israelites grumbled so much. Then the switchbacks start—burning legs and frozen fingers.

Did Peter, James and John grumble too?

With the breaking dawn comes a quickening pace. The book of Exodus echoes through my head: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.”

The creation story plays out in real time before me as the sun casts hues of burns and bruises, millions of years flashing by in the exposed faces of the mountains.

The trail turns hard into the rising sun and the steep sides of the plateau.

Saturated with endorphins, I find a little mystical union with those who have gone before. I am with the Hebrews as they gaze into the Promised Land where the grass shimmers like electric honey in the morning breeze. I move without fear past the well of some forgotten civilization. The trail ducks in and out of shadow and gulley, winding through juniper forests with momentary vistas of field and fold.

I follow the spur trail to Limpia Creek Vista, the highest point in the park. As I stand in the full warmth of the sun, shielding my eyes against the dazzling white of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Indian lodge, one valley over, it occurs to me that the Transfiguration is less about the appearance of Christ and more about the vision of the witnesses—to be so enlightened as to see the love of the creator reflected in the beauty of creation, and to be so brave as to rise and follow that beauty down the mountain and through the shadow of death for the good of all illumined below. This could be our church.

To my trail running friends, maybe give religion another shot. No need to embrace the organized stuff. Instead let the great traditions add something to our experiences. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity can provide lenses to help us interpret those mystical experiences we find on the trail.

The community and devotion are already there. Trail running could actually be our sangha, our synagogue, or our church.

To my church friends, try going outside. Go to the mountain to pray. Be driven into the wilderness by the Spirit—not metaphorically, but literally. The poet-prophet Wendell Berry wrote, “[The Bible] is a book best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”

Jesus spent more days on the trail than in the temple. Maybe time in the wilderness is not accidental to the Gospel?

The Rev Christian Hawley runs and serves with St Matthew’s Episcopal Church and Trail Roots, Austin, TX.  MacGyver mostly hangs out with Temple of the Dog.

 

Leave A Comment

20 Comments on "Could Trail Running Be Your Church?"

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Matt Langer
Guest
This is so wonderful — thank you. I thought you might appreciate this quote from former AT-record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis that I’ve been turning over in my mind for a couple of years now: “But perhaps more than anything, Jennifer connected with nature in a visceral way. ‘I discovered nature was not separate from me, but that I could be a part of nature, flowing with it.’ Pharr Davis says she felt closest to God while on the trail. ‘I realized that maybe my gift is an ability to move swiftly in the wilderness. As a Christian, I felt… Read more »
Jimmy D. Brown
Guest
I’m so excited to see how God is using running to share the Good News of Jesus with others. A little over a year ago we started Runner Church here in Omaha, Nebraska. We meet at various locations on Sunday mornings where I share a message from the Bible and then we run together. We’ve had as many as 60 runners show up. We also host a Bible study in our home on Sunday evenings for runners. Runner Church has been very well received in the community and I sense that God is using this as a way to reach… Read more »
Anna van Z
Guest

Why don’t you folks celebrate your good news amongst yourselves and stop proselytizing to others? It’s incredibly arrogant to assume your way of spiritual thinking is THE right way. As the ancient sages said, “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”

Greenerride
Guest

Thanks for this piece–really interesting. I’ve seen a bumper sticker that says “the forest is my church.” I think this may be a Wiccan-related slogan, but I’ve always thought it works for me also–as a non-Wiccan trail runner. Although not a religious person, I feel spiritually alive when running trails. This sensation tells me that I should study up on Pantheism, and your piece certainly adds to my curiosity about the mind-spirit-nature connection. Happy running!

David Reddel
Guest
Thanks Trail Runner for publishing this piece. For much of my first 18 years of life, I spent my summers hiking and running mountain trails in Colorado. Going to the Wilderness is now a regular summer experience for me and my family. As Christian and an ultrarunner, I now get to share that passion with others in the community, bringing them out to Colorado in the summertime to hike and run. This year at a faith based running basecamp near Leadville, we will be running single track though incredible places and getting to the top of Hope Pass, Mosquito Pass… Read more »
Renee
Guest

Absolutely brilliant! …. “to be so enlightened as to see the love of the creator reflected in the beauty of creation, and to be so brave as to rise and follow that beauty down the mountain and through the shadow of death for the good of all illumined below. This could be our church.”
Outstanding article coming a very holy and very real man!

nono
Guest

Very disappointing to see a parallel drawn between trail running and religion. Very disappointing.

Run_Runn3r
Guest

I don’t think he’s drawing a parallel between trail running and religion as he is pointing out the connection between trail running and the potential for a spiritual connection or a spiritual experience while out running on the trail and in nature…if you’ve never experienced this, I suggest opening yourself up to the possibility…if you find it difficult to do so, run farther.

nono
Guest

Did you read the title?
“Could Trail Running Be Your Church?
Running and religion have more in common than we may realize.”
God is fiction. Religion is built around fantasy. Running is real. No parallels!
And, by the way, the earth is not flat.

nono
Guest

And even more so disappointing, the parallels drawn are with Christianity…
This piece completely ruined the reputation that this magazine had for me. This is where I used to come for a pleasant escape from the nonsense I see in the news. This has been ruined now. This piece completely change what this magazine is to me.

keith petersen
Guest
Christian: Thanks for the article. As a Roman Catholic, I find God in every aspect of my life. Before I begin each run I ask for protection from my guardian angel and the Holy Mother. At the end of my runs, I make acts of faith, hope and charity. Don’t let any of the negative scoffers commenters bother you. God himself informs us. 1 Kings 19:11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart… Read more »
Jeff Iosa
Guest

Great article. I’ve been saying for years, that what draws me to the ultra community is that it reminds of my Christian community. I started writing short stories about God and running, almost like a Max Lucado devotional book.

WWilson
Guest

Great piece! Thank you for sharing your thoughful viewpoint. No matter what you believe, it’s hard to deny the miracle of nature and the direction behind every footstep. I too feel closest to God and my true self on the trail and have always felt that it was my “place to be” on Sunday or any other day of the week. Happy running – on Sundays and any other day!

Martin
Guest

Religion? No. Please, no.

Spirituality: A deep sense of emotional connection and personal perspective — how you fit in — with/in a larger reality. Or similar.

Trail running is a conversation and relationship with a landscape, an immensely large and beautiful reality. No ‘religious’ belief required. “God” can either exist, or not, and that spirituality remains. No beliefs, no ‘metaphysical superstructure’ required. I’ll be keeping it that way.

Thanks!

Stephen
Guest

It is unfortunate that feeling connected to nature is unusual enough that we consider it to be a profound idea, Nevertheless, I agree that trail running is my time to escape the trappings and distractions of 21st century human existence. I prefer running alone with only my thoughts and my surroundings. For me it has nothing to do with spirituality or closeness to a God.

Kent Boles
Guest
My job gets me up early all week, so I’m usually out the door and on the trails near my house in Sisters Oregon by 6 on a Sunday morning. 8 to 14 or so miles later I have plenty of time to get ready and be on time to teach my middle school Sunday school class. 11 to 14 year old kids can be a challenge, but I am so at peace when I get there that we usually just have great discussions. Really connecting with my surroundings is part of my worship experience with God. It also helps… Read more »
Jennifer
Guest

Great article. Many times I’ve had to explain to my family that mom going for a run isn’t just about fitness, it’s about my time with God so I am a better wife, mother and person when I return, less stressed, more centered. And thanks for the inspiration about the Transfiguration. I hadn’t thought about it from that viewpoint.

rudy regner
Guest

I’ve always felt closer to the Creator when running through the woods. When I’ve got the Bible App (youversion) playing through my headphones and the sun comes up I’m extremely connected to my Maker. He’s great!

KEN RHODE
Guest

I AM CURRENTLY LIVING ON THE BEACH IN PUERTO PENASCO SONORA MEXICO. SHORTLY I WILL RETURN TO MY HOME IN FLAGSTAFF ARIZONA. I RUN HERE IN THE DESSERTS AND BACK IN FLAGSTAFF IN THE MOUNTAINS. I CAN RELATE SO WELL TO THIS STORY.

RB Q
Guest

Trail running can be your church, temple, mosque, synagogue or gurudwara. It is after all about getting enriched spiritually from the experiences we get on the trail. For this in the comments section, talking about the unchurched and what-not….I respect your right to practice your religion, at least have the courtesy to respect my right to practice mine instead of peddling arrogant nonsense about how only you know the true path to God. The paths to God are many just like all those Dipsea runners discover every year.

wpDiscuz